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Future engineers take on today’s problems

A village in Malawi lacks access to clean water. A farmer in Zambia has no way of selling his crops. A sick child in Ghana can't reach the local clinic.

“Engineers Without Borders is all about applying the problem-solving approach of engineering to these issues,” explains Jonathan Verrett, a Chemical Engineering student who heads up the downtown campus division of the McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada. “It’s about looking critically at the world around us and seeing how we can apply our skills to help.”  

EWB McGill members work tirelessly to raise both funds and awareness, by holding events like Fair Trade coffee mornings and fashion shows highlighting socially conscious brands. With the money they’ve collected, the chapter sends student volunteers, known as “Junior Fellows”, to countries across Africa to work on projects aimed at building sustainable solutions to the root causes of poverty.

One of these Fellows, Carlo Primiani, recently travelled to Ghana to help train local Ministry of Food and Agriculture employees to work collaboratively with rural farmers to plan future crops. The ultimate goal?  To show the farmers how to make informed choices that will take them from farming for survival to farming as a lasting source of income.

“Soy, for example, is not necessarily more profitable than other crops, but it may be. The point is for the farmer and the Ministry employee to work together to determine if that's a good plan for the farmer in the upcoming year.” says Primiani. “Engineers Without Borders isn't about giving handouts. It’s about providing people with the tools they need to break the cycle of poverty on their own. We try to give people the skills to think differently and help themselves.”

Interest in the McGill chapter has grown by leaps and bounds since it was established in 2001. Verrett says that a big part of this can be attributed to the enthusiasm of returning Junior Fellows. “They come back from overseas and talk about their experiences,” he says. “They really want to tell people about what they've done and seen, and encourage others to get involved.”

And while McGill's chapter is only one of 29 in Canada, it's far from being just another kid in the crowd. McGill was named Chapter of the Year in 2009 by the National Office of EWB, and is well known for consistently punching above its weight.

“McGill's student body is smaller than some of the other chapters, like UBC and U of T, yet we're still able to attract a large amount of volunteers and excel in all areas we work in,” says Verrett. “It really shows how dedicated the McGill student community is to making a change in the world.”