Some global-minded Eastern Illinois University students hope their research will lead to healthier rural water supplies throughout Haiti and other developing countries.
The EIU team was one of only 50 groups in the country to receive $10,000 in research funding for the past academic year through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity, and the Planet.
That distinction also allowed the students to attend the program’s conference and present a display of their findings on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in May.
Though the five EIU students came from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, they found common ground in their passion for finding ways to improve the design and longevity of cisterns that store drinking water for rural families.
The endeavor – an extracurricular volunteer effort for all involved – fits in well with EIU’s commitment to “service learning.”
“This project allows the students to take everything they’ve learned at EIU so far and apply it to the global community,” said project adviser Kathleen M. Bower, associate professor of EIU’s geology/geography department.
The research team was comprised of Mary Brown of Kansas, Kimberly Burnitz of Lockport, Marissa Jernegan of Flossmoor, Kyla Nance of Oak Forest and Kimberly Schiaretti of Charleston.
“Each of us has gained valuable knowledge, exploring countless disciplines and discovering the living, breathing organism known as the Third World and its often misunderstood struggle,” Nance wrote.
The group included members of EIU’s Haiti Connection, a student organization that works to meet the need for more potable water in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The women’s research focused on Barasa, Haiti, an isolated farming community with no access to potable water, electricity or plumbing.
Cisterns are used to store water for household use, but they often crack, allowing water to escape.
Keeping Haiti’s culture, economy and geology in mind, the EIU students explored potential solutions to prevent or repair cistern cracking, using affordable, obtainable materials that are easy to apply, safe and culturally acceptable.
“We wanted to come up with solutions that the Haitians could continue to use,” Bower said.
Students found that adding dried fibers from sisal, a native plant found in abundance in Haiti, made concrete stronger.
They also found that allowing the concrete to cure longer – 28 days instead of three – significantly increased its strength.
In addition, students examined the use of epoxies for the repair of cracked cisterns. They found a type that should work well, and a local business has agreed to donate a large supply.
Although the EPA-funded portion of the group’s work has come to an end, members of Haiti Connection plan to continue to work with Haitian masons to field-test the findings.
Members of Haiti Connection travel to Haiti two or three times a year, so some students will be able to work with Haitians on the issue on a personal basis.
“It’s the nature of the university to make students think critically and come up with solutions,” said Roy Lanham, the Newman Catholic Center’s campus minister, who serves as the adviser for EIU’s Haiti Connection.
“Now these students can bring this gift,” Lanham said. “The impact is huge. This project will have such a long-term, positive, wonderful effect. This is what the university is all about.”
Students also expressed satisfaction that their work could positively influence people for years to come.
“I think it’s a project that will keep on giving,” said Burnitz, a student researcher.