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Lehigh Students and Faculty Collaborate to Provide Healthier H2O to Honduran Village

What does it mean for an institution like Lehigh to “break down disciplinary walls?” Is it mere curriculum expansion, a way to provide a broader set of educational opportunities to students on our campus?

Kristen Jellison was recently named as one of two Lehigh faculty to have been awarded the 2006 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, in part because of her work in Pueblo Nuevo. Click here for more.

To hear Kristen Jellison, assistant professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering, tell it, “interdisciplinary” means solving a problem holistically by taking advantage of a wealth of available expertise. For the residents of Pueblo Nuevo, Honduras, it means nothing less than a dramatic improvement to their quality of life.

This is because Jellison is leading a cross-Lehigh effort to help this small rural community ensure a clean, reliable supply of water to its residents. To hear her tell the story, though, the benefits of this project flow in both directions.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch all but destroyed the water supply to this village, and the development of a new neighboring community exacerbated the problem. Unreliable sources and distribution infrastructure, a lack of education on the importance of sanitary drinking water, a surge in the parasitic content of their water – these have all added up to serious hardship and an increase in disease among the 10,000 or so residents of the town.

According to Jellison, this engineering effort grew out of research being conducted by Dr. David Small, professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Lehigh. “For a number of years, Dr. Small has been visiting this community each summer to conduct archeological research, and over time has developed a strong relationship with the residents,” she says. “He invited us to join him this summer to explore the water-distribution issue from an engineering standpoint, and to work with the community to ensure their interest in and ability to support a solution over the long-term.”


The Lehigh team hikes into the
highlands above Pueblo Nuevo

Jellison, Erica Smith Caloiero, director of Lehigh’s Study Abroad program, and students Stacy Sommerfield and Carol Crewdson packed their bags for Honduras this summer, meeting with the town’s mayor, doctor, plumber, and education leaders, among others, to determine the project’s next steps.

“The solution to this problem involves far more than applying engineering expertise,” says Jellison. “There is a cost-analysis aspect, linguistic barriers to overcome, a crucial community involvement and education piece, and cultural, religious, and political realities that cannot be ignored. We are looking to involve many parts of our academic community; the people of Pueblo Nuevo will benefit from having world-class expertise tackling this issue, and the Lehigh academic community will benefit from the experience and knowledge gained through solving a real-world, cross-disciplinary problem.”

To deal with this wide-ranging set of issues, Jellison and Carol Crewdson, a 2005 graduate of Lehigh’s Civil & Environmental Engineering program and currently a fifth-year Presidential Scholar, are spearheading an effort to draw upon the expertise of students and faculty across Lehigh University.

“Last year,” recalls Jellison, “Dr. Bernard Amadei, the founder of a group called Engineers Without Borders, spoke on campus. A cohort of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty members were immediately interested in starting our own chapter. However, we created the Lehigh EWB chapter within a larger student organization entitled “Students for Sustainable Development” to encourage students and researchers from various disciplines to join us to work together on this issue; we, as engineers, cannot solve this type of problem in a vacuum.”

Ms. Crewdson, for her part, is brimming with enthusiasm over the possibilities for the ‘Students for Sustainable Development’ initiative.

Carol Crewdson, surrounded by dozens
of new friends from Pueblo Nuevo

"Since the age of fourteen, my goal has been to participate in the Peace Corps or a similar international development activity," says Carol. "When [Rossin College Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies] Rick Weisman brought me to Dr. Amadei’s lecture last year, I had no idea this type of project even existed. The term ‘engineering’ has this image of being dry, maybe a little boring, and not connected to the outside world. This project is a perfect example of how wrong that perception is – I’m so excited to be able to use the skills and knowledge I’ve learned in engineering to effect people’s lives in such a valuable way.”

In the end, Jellison is hoping that the project not only helps an entire community to improve its health and vigor, but helps to raise Lehigh students’ awareness of how their efforts can impact society at large. “Universities are much more than education and research institutions,” she says. “We also must work to develop responsible international citizens who can take all of that education and research and put it to use where it is needed most.”

The Students for Sustainable Development team is currently planning for a baseline community health survey, a topographical assessment, and an effort to design an improved water distribution network in Pueblo Nuevo.

If you are interested in participating in this project or becoming a member of Students for Sustainable Development, the group can be reached via e-mail at insdc@lehigh.edu.



—Chris Larkin

Posted on Tuesday, December 06, 2005

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