A group of six students in civil and environmental engineering worked with Washington State University’s new student group of Engineers Without Borders and Asiana Education Development (AED), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that runs schools for orphans in Sri Lanka, to design two schools that will be rebuilt in the region destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami. The organization is working to rebuild nine of its schools that were destroyed.

When completed, the schools, which will cost a total of about $100,000, will hold about 720 students altogether and contain about two dozen classrooms.

Student Alex McDonald started the WSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders about two years ago. Hoping to find a way to be of service to the community, McDonald stumbled upon the organization, which formed in 2000 and does community-based, sustainable engineering projects around the world. The WSU group’s initial project was the relocation design of a potable well system for a nonprofit group that does work on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

After the tsunami struck, McDonald read about efforts by AED to provide relief in Sri Lanka and to rebuild the schools. In addition to education, the schools in Sri Lanka provide a safe haven from the child prostitution and kidnappings that are of constant concern in the region, says McDonald.

McDonald contacted Adam Salmon, AED’s director, and EWB-Puget Sound Professional Partners (EWB-PSPP), a chapter of Engineers Without Borders in the Seattle area. Eventually, McDonald brought work on the design of the two schools—including initial site information provided by EWB-PSPP—back to WSU, where he worked with Professor Dan Dolan to make it part of two senior design projects.

The students’ projects promise to have a large, long-term impact on the lives of many children in Sri Lanka, says Dolan. Students participating in the project have had the opportunity to provide service, but they also are learning about engineering in a global marketplace, a skill that they will need after they graduate, he adds. Specifically, they have to carefully tailor their projects to their clients’ individual needs, which may be quite different from what Americans might expect.

“I want to introduce the students to an international view of how to do projects,” says Dolan. “The world is getting too small to do it our way only.”

The students were also particularly eager to help out in the tsunami relief efforts.

“I am interested in helping people,” says Matthew Ellis. “It’s why I became an engineer in the first place.” Besides Ellis, students who participated on the two projects include Ben Hoppe, Robyn Lee, Dan Westley, John Farleigh, and Joshua Horky.

In their designs for the projects, the students had to overcome several challenges. The schools had to be built to withstand the regular cyclones that hit the region. The buildings had to be feasible and safe for kids, meeting design parameters for a classroom setting. At the same time, the students had to take into account the particular construction practices and building techniques found in Sri Lanka, says Ellis. Furthermore, turmoil in the region has made it difficult to get information on just what the school sites looked like, he adds. Because of concerns about kidnappings, one of the schools will have a security wall around it.

EWB-PSPP has reviewed the student designs and is in charge of project management. Although construction was scheduled to begin before the end of 2006, civil strife in Sri Lanka might delay the building of the schools.