News Article

H2O for Honduras

Engineering Students Design Water System


Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. Such a simple compound, and yet it sustains all life on Earth.

For many, water is precious and scarce. Some rely on murky wells to get it, others walk miles to fetch it, and for others, rainfall is their main source.

In many rural villages worldwide, water doesn’t just come out of a faucet. Guayabillas in Honduras is one such place. An enclave of 38 homes, the people walk two miles daily to draw dirty water from a tiny well. There is no existing water system and that has led to multiple health issues for the 180 inhabitants.

So, when the opportunity to partner with Global Brigades, an international non-profit providing health and holistic help to developing communities, was presented to engineering teacher Greg Gillis-Smith, there was no question OCS students would get involved. Global Brigades utilizes high school and college student teams worldwide. One of the founding principles of the IDEA Lab, home to OCS Institute of Engineering, was that students become difference-makers by solving real-world problems through their classroom knowledge.

“This was a way for STEM students to get involved in doing something in the world, said Gillis-Smith. “We had already been talking about projects related to water and ecology, so when this hit it was an automatic connection.”

The scale and impact of this project is the largest the engineering students have taken on. Because Honduras does not have enough engineers to develop plans for water systems in remote villages, the help the high school students provided was instrumental. Oaks Christian received a grant from State Farm to offset the cost of hiring the two engineers to teach the students how to design their water system and to collect data and map out each house GPS location and elevation.

The students created the plans, and the civil engineers stamped the plans, and the government will provide the bricks and pipe to build the system. The water will be pulled from the well and stored in a tank and then distributed to the community.

Starting in January, students met twice weekly at 7:00am over Zoom with Julio and Marcos, two engineers in Honduras. Students used three programs: Google Earth, Map Source, and Epanet to design the system.

Working in teams of three, they calculated water pressure, distribution system, pipe dimensions, altitude, coordinates, slopes, and angles. They even had to brush up on their Spanish to make their presentations (with help from OCS Spanish teachers), and also adapted their calculations to the metric system. 

“We have learned how to develop, edit and budget a full, complete water system. We’ve learned everything from water sanitation to pipe diameters to make sure we were able to get enough clean water to each home,” said Grace Silvey.

Beyond logistics, the nature of working on a project to help others was a big draw for students.

“I thought this was a really cool opportunity to do something that affects more than just our school. This is a lasting thing that will keep productivity (up to 20 years) even past when we graduate from high school,” said Kyle Gunderson. 

Trevor Bennett has been on mission trips to Cuba, Mexico, and Israel, but he never thought taking a class during the school day would have a global impact.

“We have never really done anything like this in high school. I thought this was going to be a class teaching me how things work and how to build things. I definitely had no idea this was going to be something outside this classroom and even this country,” he said.

Very few classroom assignments connect people on such a personal level, and Gunderson came away with a deep appreciation of such human interactions.

“This is their life. You share some of the difficulty and the pain of what it is like to not have water. They are so involved because what you are doing can change their lives. It is such a close relationship,” he shared.

A larger scope of the project is cross-curriculum collaboration with other OCS students. In addition to the engineering students designing the system, the OCS film students are creating a documentary about the project, and the Institute of Global Leadership (IGL) students are helping with the financial side. 

Sustainability and local buy-in are cornerstones of Global Brigades. The project is a partnership with the people, government, and private enterprises. 

“We are going to build it with them, not for them. This is with the members of the community. This will be sustainable on their own,” said Bennett.

As such, each household needs to pay $62 as their share. For many Westerners, that is less than the price of dinner out, but for Guayabillas residents that news was a drop-dead moment. When that information was presented to the villagers, Gillis-Smith realized they had “fallen down on the job and not provided the complete solution which was to help them find a way to afford the project.”

That’s where the IGL students come in: they will help the villagers develop microbusiness. Each family will create crafts, such as bracelets, made from natural resources in their area, and IGL students will help market and sell through sites such as Etsy.

“It only takes $62 per household to buy the water system, forever. That’s two bracelets. If we can help them sell two bracelets per family, they can now afford this. That is duplicatable, not for us to just raise money and send it there. When it’s duplicatable and we have a solution.”