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Students' project in Honduras brought clean water to rural village

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The stereotype is that students head for Florida on spring break, but a small group of Cornell engineering students went a bit farther south earlier this year for a more serious purpose: bringing clean water to a small rural village in Honduras.

The trip was the culmination of a project for eight students in CEE 492, a class called "Engineers for a Sustainable World." The class is connected to the national organization of the same name (formerly known as Engineers Without Frontiers), which has chapters on 30 campuses, including Cornell. In class, the students designed a water treatment system for a small village. Outside, they brought their plans to life in the village of La 34, a farming community of about 100 families near the northwest coast of Honduras.

Officially they built a "flocculation and sedimentation system." The village gets its water from mountain streams fed by heavy rains, and what comes out of the tap is almost always muddy. With support from a local organization called Agua Para el Pueblo and a $14,000 donation from International Rural Water, the students built a concrete tank containing a series of channels through which water is made to flow slowly, meandering around a series of baffles. Aluminum sulfate is added to encourage tiny particles of mud to collect into larger clumps that will settle out from the slow-moving water. From there, the water passes through a chlorinator and finally to the water taps in village homes, where it will no longer come out brown. 

La 34, or "La treinta y quatro" (it was once a numbered plantation run by United Fruit, and the name stuck), had been using two small water purifiers built by retired engineer Fred Stottlemeyer, a former president of International Rural Water, who assisted the Cornell group in making contact. Before starting their project, the student group addressed a town meeting that seemed to have been attended by nearly every resident, where they explained the project in order to secure local approval. Three members of the student group are native Spanish speakers. The presentation, they say, was key to the success of the project, because it showed the visitors' respect for the villagers. 

The group consisted of seniors Christopher Boone, Drew Lebowitz, Roslyn Odum, Jackie Romero, Laura Mar and Perla Lastra; junior Shubha Bhar and graduate student Brian Rahm. Rachel Davidson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Monroe Weber-Shirk, research associate and senior lecturer, teach the class, assisted by postdoctoral associate Park Doing. 

CEE 492 embraces four separate projects. Other students worked on solar ovens to be used in Morocco and Ecuador, the use of vegetable oils as motor fuel and modifying toy robot dogs to use as hazardous waste detectors.

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