Engineers With Soul!

By Shlomo  Maital

                    Talesnick (right) and a student in the biogas generator pit with Namsaling villagers looking on     Mark Talesnick in Namsaling, Nepal


“Why,” asked Technion Civil Engineering Professor Mark Talesnick, “do rural schools in Nepal begin classes at 10:30?”

    “Because the kids don’t have alarm clocks?”   I answered, lamely.

   “Because,” he explained, “mothers and their children spend four hours, from 6 to 10 a.m. gathering wood for cooking and heating fires.”

   I spoke to Prof. Talesnick about Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a global organization whose Technion chapter he leads.    Talesnick holds the UNESCO chair for Sustainable Engineering in Developing Communities.  EWB is not connected with the similarly-named Doctors Without Borders.   Its mission is to join with local partners, mainly in developing communities, to implement sustainable engineering solutions, while widening the social conscience of its students and members, through low-budget high-impact projects.

     EWB forms bonds with the communities in which it works and makes sure it transfers its projects to locals before moving on.   It seeks to educate ‘engineers with souls’, ‘global engineers’, faculty and students,  who work to “develop sustainable appropriate engineering solutions to problems we have assessed in developing communities, solutions these communities can maintain, fix, sustain and reproduce.”

    Talesnick explains that “engineering schools worldwide emulate the lessons of schools in North America, where engineers are taught mainly how to build 80-story buildings and six-lane highways”.    “We are trying to create a new type of engineer at Technion – and it’s working,” he said.  “If we don’t change the way we teach engineering, the globe will collapse.”

     “My experience is that engineering curricula lack three crucial aspects,” Talesnick told me.  “First, social conscience.  I find that when social conscience is injected , students understand how their engineering tools can make positive impact.  Second,  at Technion, despite its being a technological institute, most electrical engineering students could not install a light switch, so “hands on” experience is imperative.  Third, I know this will sound corny, but I want my students to learn leadership skills.  Our curriculum produces technocrats;  I think that engineers and technologists should be shouldering as much of  the leadership in our society as do the lawyers, business people, ex-military personnel, and the new hit, journalists.   I have found that by introducing social conscience, giving the opportunity for hands-on work in real-life projects,  the outcome is leadership skills.  This is one part of my objective of introducing Engineers with Borders to the Technion.”

    The Technion EWB chapter has eight ongoing projects, including water and energy projects in Ethiopia and the Negev and a path-breaking one in Namsaling, Nepal.  Prof. Talesnick spoke about the latter, an “anaerobic digester”, or biogas generator,   with enormous passion.

     “Our partnership with the Nepali village of Namsaling (about 1,000 families) started in 2008.  The households have very limited financial resources.  Most of the families survive on limited agriculture,  most households will keep four or five large animals, yaks, cows, pigs or water buffalos.  Nepal finds itself literally between a rock (the Himalayas) and a hard place (India).  Namsaling and many other villages face the same challenges: Lack of clean water and sanitation due to animal and human waste running off into the water sources, resulting in health issues and digestive track disorders, and lack of affordable clean energy. A Nepali woman has a 30 times greater chance of contracting respiratory disease than a Western woman because of inhaling indoor cooking fire smoke.  Cooking, heating and lighting in so many rural Nepali households are achieved by cutting down trees and burning wood.  This creates a vicious circle – water has to be boiled to purify it, so more trees are cut down, burning more wood and creating more indoor smoke.  The question is, how can these problems be addressed together, within the capacity of the local communities?”

     The answer?  Biogas generators, which use bacteria,  water and animal manure or human waste in an oxygen-free environment to generate hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane that can be used for cooking.   There are 200,000 such generators in Nepal.  But in a preliminary trip to Namsaling,  Technion students found that building them in villages was expensive and time-consuming. First, a pit is dug, filled with soil, then a dome is shaped over it, covered with concrete, and finally, the soil under the dome is removed.  Technion EWB students invented a way to build biogas generators faster and cheaper,  first using aluminum and Styrofoam (not readily available in Nepal),  then using locally-available bamboo fashioned into large pie-shaped sushi mats.  The team has built 60 biogas generators in Namsaling, and they hope to build 950.  Each one is a household unit, able to convert 40-50 kg.  (100 lbs.) of human and animal waste into 5-6 hours of cooking fuel daily.  Each of these units saves 12,000 kg. (25,200 lbs.) of wood per family a year.  That’s close to a dozen trees.

      The whole focus of EWB is to say, this is not about us (the visitors), it is solely about you, the village, the community, we have no political agenda, we simply want to help you help yourselves because it is the right thing to do and because we ourselves will learn and grow by doing so.