Social science at the equator

Student, professor track impact of Ecuador engineering project

March 8, 2017

UW-Stout’s Tina Lee and UW-Madison’s Andy Gray interview a villager in Tabuga, Ecuador, about the new water system.

If Damien Adamski hadn’t come to fully appreciate the “applied” aspect of his applied social science major at University of Wisconsin-Stout, he did by late January when he returned from Ecuador.

Heading into his final semester, Adamski, of Eau Claire, and Associate Professor Tina Lee went on a special research trip with a team of engineering students from UW-Madison. The UW-Madison students were finishing installation of a clean water system in the village of Tabuga, on the northwest coast.

As anthropologists, Adamski and Lee joined the engineering team to document the impact of the project, in part because UW-Stout engineering students are working on a similar project with villagers in Nicaragua. The UW-Stout project is part of National Science Foundation grant; money from that grant funded the Ecuador trip.

“This was a chance to get some real fieldwork experience and use the skills that I’ve learned here at UW-Stout,” said Adamski, who has an anthropology focus within his major and is minoring in economics.

“It was nice to see this group form a lasting connection with the locals. We spent most of our time going to houses interviewing them. I did one-on-one interviews with the Madison students on ethics issues and transcribed and coded them to develop some common themes.“

The Engineers Without Borders trip to Tabuga, Ecuador, included UW-Stout’s Tina Lee, left, and Damien Adamski, second from right.Adamski said that the value of the project became clear on the final night of their trip. “We went to what was like a closing ceremony. The gifts that were given to us and the kind words really hit home for me. These people were really thankful for what had been done,” Adamski said.

Taking field notes

Lee and Adamski were impressed with the water system, which was designed and installed over several years, but their interest was specific to the relationship the engineers developed with the villagers.

They observed as the UW-Madison students went house-to-house in the village and interviewed residents. The group hiked about a half-mile daily from a lodging site in a preserve through the jungle to the village of about 350 people.

“We wanted to see how students interacted with the community and what their relationship was with community members,” Lee said.

UW-Madison students, all in engineering plus one political science major, tested the water for E. coli and tested water pressure before turning over the system to the village.

Residents had been hesitant to drink the water until the students arrived in the village and provided proof that it was free of E. coli. “Students showed them the E. coli test. We were drinking the water very conspicuously in front of each other,” Lee said.

UW-Stout’s Damien Adamski, right, and Juan Salas of UW-Madison walk through Tabuga, Ecuador.


“It’s a pretty amazing thing — everyone had clean water. The system they installed was very impressive. They designed an entire water system for a small town. That’s something governments normally do,” Lee said.

The Ecuador project, through Engineers Without borders, provided invaluable field research for Lee and Adamski, who will pass on their experience to Associate Professor Devin Berg, head of an ongoing water project in Nicaragua, also through Engineers Without Borders.

Lee, with Berg and Elizabeth Buchanan, director of the Center for Applied Ethics and acting director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, also is working with the national Engineers Without Borders organization to develop a guide to best practices on how to measure the social impacts of such efforts.

Tina Lee, along with UW-Madison’s Will Caldwell, watch a child from Tabuga try out a camera.“We can give advice to Devin and to Engineers Without Borders on how to do this well and make sure it’s clear what the community needs and wants,” Lee said.

“Engineers are not always trained at how to look at the human impacts,” Lee said. “It helped (in Ecuador) to have someone trained in social science to pull apart the impacts. We helped them work through the survey,” said Lee, who also did some translating.

“The goal is to have a really good relationship with the community you’re working with. The UW-Madison students did an awesome job,” she said, adding that they also trained villagers how to use, maintain and expand the system.

Adamski is a paid research assistant for Lee on the UW-Stout grant. He has conducted interviews, catalogued Engineers Without Borders projects and gathered and analyzed data. He will graduate in May.

Learn more about UW-Stout's applied social science major here.

UW-Stout Nicaragua project

The UW-Stout water system project in Las Macias, Nicaragua, headed by Berg, is nearing the end of the design phase. A return trip to the village is planned in August. Construction and installation of the water system designed by students will begin, Berg said.

To donate to the project, click here. A fundraiser, Karaoke Without Borders, will be held in late April.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1540301. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Photos

Top: UW-Stout’s Tina Lee and UW-Madison’s Andy Gray interview a villager in Tabuga, Ecuador, about the new water system.

Second: The Engineers Without Borders trip to Tabuga, Ecuador, included UW-Stout’s Tina Lee, left, and Damien Adamski, second from right. Second from left are UW-Madison participants Andy Gray, Will Caldwell, Alex Burant, Jamie Zander, Juan Salas, Joey Brunner and Samir El-Omaris.

Third: UW-Stout’s Damien Adamski, right, and Juan Salas of UW-Madison walk through Tabuga, Ecuador.

Bottom: Tina Lee, along with UW-Madison’s Will Caldwell, watch a child from Tabuga try out a camera.