Helping to bring clean water to a primary school in Sierra Leone
A post from Biohabitats senior environmental scientist Dr. Peter May
Earlier this month, I traveled to Sierra Leone with the University of Maryland chapter of the organization Engineers Without Borders. I am a faculty lecturer in the University of Maryland’s Environmental Science and Technology Department, and I was asked to accompany UMD students on this trip as a faculty advisor.
The purpose of the trip was to enhance an existing 5,000-liter rainwater capture, filtration and UV sterilization system designed by UM students at the Abigail D. Butscher Primary School in Freetown, the nation’s capital and largest city. The school holds a unique connection to UMD. It was named after the mother of former NFL player, UMD alum, and Freetown native, Madieu Williams. Funding for this school, the overall project, and our trip was provided by the Madieu Williams Foundation.
The system had been designed and installed by a previous UMD student engineering team, but given the community’s lack of access to clean water–their well had gone dry, and water upstream was polluted–there was a need to expand its capacity. Informed by their studies the students tripled the capacity of the system to 15,000-liters so that when the rains came it would extend through the dry season. My work with water reuse, including the Biohabitats-designed natural wastewater/stormwater treatment wetland at Washington, DC’s Sidwell Friends School, allowed me to help refine the system’s filter and UV maintenance protocol.
I am very proud of the UM engineering students who took weeks out of their busy semester to design and used their holiday break schedule to make this project happen. This was not just a project to use and hone their water and civil engineering skills. The cross cultural, people-to-people connections with the school’s students, teachers, parents, and community were equally important components of the trip. Hearing the influence of the students’ on the young students on both sides made me realize the power of person to person connections. Inspiration abounded on the part of the Maryland students to do right by their profession in the world. Some of the students had never traveled.
As for the young Sierra Leonean students who watched intently and sometimes helped it was no wonder a common answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” was “engineer or scientist or builder, or professor!”
Personally, I’m also grateful and proud to work for a company that gives its employees the time to do good in places and with people beyond our regular good work that we enjoy. That is inspiration magnified.
So what do a Baltimore-based ecological firm, an NFL player, a small primary school in West Africa, and a group of University of Maryland undergrads have in common? Everything in the world. We are all one.