Social science at the equator
Student, professor track impact of Ecuador engineering project
March 8, 2017
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
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.
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.
“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
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.
“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
“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.
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.###
Tina Lee and UW-Madison’s Andy Gray interview a villager in Tabuga, Ecuador,
about the new water system.
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.
Damien Adamski, right, and Juan Salas of UW-Madison walk through Tabuga,
Lee, along with UW-Madison’s Will Caldwell, watch a child from Tabuga try out a