Engineering Positive Change

Engineers Without Borders leader Catherine Leslie tells a Tufts podcast about the thousands of students and professionals who volunteer worldwide to build everything from water systems to energy projects

When you think about engineers, you probably think of people who excel at science and math. But Catherine Leslie, the executive director of the volunteer group Engineers Without Borders USA, says that other traits are going to be just as important in the next generation of engineers. She’s seen it when volunteers help a community get clean water or assess buildings damaged by a hurricane—having a head for numbers is great, but so is being able to listen.

In this episode of Tell Me More, triple Jumbo Ethan Danahy, a research assistant professor at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, talks with Leslie about what engineering students should be studying now, how politics makes the job harder but still worth it, and the joy of making lives better one project at a time. 

ETHAN DANAHY: I would like to welcome Cathy Leslie from Engineers Without Borders here to Tufts University. Thanks for joining us.

CATHY LESLIE: No problem, my pleasure to come.

DANAHY: Could you give a little background on who you are and a little bit about Engineers Without Borders?

LESLIE: Sure. I am a civil engineer in the state of Colorado, which doesn’t tell you a whole bunch, but I am a daughter of a civil engineer and a registered nurse. They moved us to Australia as I was a kid, so I got a travel bug in me. Did my engineering education at Michigan Tech, jumped from there into the Peace Corps in Nepal, so that gives you my kind of travel, wanderlust sense of adventure. So, I do a lot of stuff in the back country. I like to ski, I like to backpack, like to go hut to hut.

Did my practice in the kind of small company/large company, worked through municipality for a while, and then when I met the founder of Engineers Without Borders, got back in touch with kind of my Peace Corps experience and my advocacy for communities and keeping their identity and really working for the outcomes of the community instead of kind of the outcomes of developers or outcomes of a government. And so decided to hop back into Engineers Without Borders as a full-time staff person.

What Engineers Without Borders does is really work in a community driven format using volunteers. And so we really put volunteers to work in a meaningful way and in a skills-based way, and at the same time we develop the skills of those volunteers for their own career development. So, we have a twofold mission, one is that community-driven community impact and the second is the professional development of the volunteer.

DANAHY: So you talked about the concept of volunteer. Can you describe the sort of typical background or who those volunteers are—where they are in life?

LESLIE: Sure. Well, at the early part of Engineers Without Borders, those volunteers were predominantly students in universities across the country. They came from a mix of engineering disciplines and actually 20 to 30 percent of them were not engineering disciplines at all—a lot of social sciences, a lot of health care. They came together in pursuit of an infrastructure type of project for that community, whether it was a water project, a bridge project, an energy project, but it really takes all the disciplines to get those engineering projects constructed and really operational for the long haul. So for the early years, it was predominantly engineering students working in conjunction with professionals to get those projects installed.

After about ten years, those students actually graduated and wanted to stay involved. So now we have probably a third of professionals, two-thirds students. And the professional demographic is growing at a larger rate than our student demographic actually is, so it will become a mix, probably a 50/50 mix, and then after that, it will probably tilt more professionals because students actually do keep graduating and there’s only so many students at any one time. Then, professionals will take over the larger demographic. But that is going to take a little while.

DANAHY: It’s amazing to hear how it really resonates with your volunteers and that they want to sort of turn it from a school project then into sort of a life mission. That’s really cool to hear. Can you speak a little bit about what those numbers are? How many people are actually sort of participating in these types of projects?

LESLIE: Yeah, so for us membership is just a byproduct. We actually do measure it, right now we at about 17,000, but we don’t enforce membership, right. So, we know that for every official member we have there’s probably four times as many people in the chapters, so multiply 17,000 by four and you probably get a sense of community. But for us we are more galvanized around the metrics of community impact and so we don’t really focus on the metrics of membership.

DANAHY: Can you describe a little bit more in depth some of the types of projects that you see your organization and the members actually embarking on?

LESLIE: Sure. We have three types of projects these days. The first project that a lot of people hear about with Engineers Without Borders is the chapter project—what I call our labors of love—that we started at early on in the 2000s. Those are our five-year commitments to communities where predominantly they were water projects where a chapter, whether it was student or professional, joined up with a community to build a water project. Whether it was installing a bore hole or water well, doing all the pumps and pipes and parts to get that water out of the well into the community, building a tap stand, and making sure the community had the operations and maintenance know-how to keep that going year after year after year. And those projects took a while to get done. Sometimes it was one well in Uganda in a project that was just being done by the New Hampshire professional chapter. It was nine wells to serve 9,000 people.

So those projects go on each and every year. We complete between 100 and 150 of those per year and we have about 600 to 700 of those active at any one time.

A program we launched about five years ago here in the United States, it’s called our Community Engineering Corps, where we actually serve communities here in the US that don’t have access to typical engineering services. It could be a community in North Dakota that the developer took all the money and ran and left a community’s drinking water that had five times the normal limit of radium, and they don’t have access to engineers to figure out how to solve that problem. Well, they called us and we helped them solve that problem. Or migrant workers who are drinking water that’s contaminated by big agricultural waste, where they’ve put too much fertilizer on the ground, it’s contaminated the groundwater. So those projects go on here in the United States. 

And then the third program that’s around, that has been around for about five years as well, it’s called our Engineering Service Corps, where our more experienced volunteers—we loan them out to folks like the United Nations Development Program or other NGOs that just need specific expertise to get their jobs done. So a really good example is after Hurricane Maria in Dominica, they needed some structural assistance to assess buildings as to whether they had to be torn down or they could be lived in or they just needed help. In over three months working with the Dominicans and the Dominican government, we helped them assess 100 percent of their building structures and rewrite their building codes with twelve volunteers. So, significant impact there.

DANAHY: Yeah, it’s interesting to hear both about the sort of sustained multi-year efforts and then also the ability of your organization to be responsive to need as it comes up sort of right away.

LESLIE: Exactly. With the Engineering Service Corps, we can deploy in seventy-two hours after an event like an earthquake or a hurricane. In fact, we’ve committed to rapid response teams with the UN. They deploy to about forty events worldwide on a yearly basis and we have an ongoing contract with them to do that for specific engineering type of expertise.

DANAHY: What’s one of the most inspirational stories that you’ve sort of encountered during your time at Engineers Without Borders?

LESLIE: Oh, there’s lots of them.

DANAHY: Of course, I bet there is. Is there any way to pick a nugget there to share?

LESLIE: So, I think my favorite lately is I was out on a project with our Nicaragua country office. You know, it’s fun for me to get in the field because I don’t get to do it very often. We were going out to a project that had been completed by one of our chapters, and because the electrical company had been delayed, it hadn’t been commissioned yet. The power had not been turned onto the pump station and the community was waiting and waiting.

I was lucky enough to be there when they actually turned it on, and we had this small celebration when we turned on the pump because this community was so patient. They hadn’t had water to their individual tap stands for about ten years, and the community had grown and they had been walking into the main city center for their water. And it was probably a two- to three-mile walk, and the kids had to do this walk, and what they would do is they would come home from school, the jerrycans would be at their bus stop and they would load the jerrycans and then climb up this hill to their houses.

And they didn’t have to do this climb anymore and they didn’t have to do it two or three times throughout the course of the day for Mom. So, I was there, we had a small celebration at the point we were going to turn it on. We had piñatas for the kids. This was a big deal to these kids and they were jumping all over the place. There was this little boy, he was probably about six years old, and every time he swung at the piñata, he was so small he would lift himself off his feet and he just could not break the piñata, just couldn’t do it.

But he was so excited because he didn’t have to carry this jerrycan anymore, which I swear weighed more than he did. And he finally came over, grabbed my hand, and we both took a swing at the piñata and it broke, and he was so ecstatic that he got to swing at the piñata, it broke, and he didn’t have to carry this water anymore from the bus stop. He just could not talk. I mean he was just, he was crying, he was ecstatic, he had his candy and he had his water. But that whole celebration with the community that the water finally got turned on after years was incredible.

So, when you see what it does in communities and you can see the progression from one community to the next, it’s a pretty significant impact on us as volunteers, on communities as you interact with them. It’s pretty life-changing for everybody.

DANAHY: Yeah, and it’s amazing just to hear how it sticks with you.

LESLIE: Yeah, absolutely.

DANAHY: You talk about these successes and these experiences and all the greatness, but then you move on to the next city over and you see the need there and there’s a city after that and a city after that. Can it sometimes seem insurmountable, or is there hope that the changes that you’re making will sort of build momentum and really start to make differences?

LESLIE: Yeah, I mean, you can get depressed. You can see the statistics and you can kind of wonder—the one that’s out there is two billion people lack access to clean water, and it’s like “Oh my God, is this ever going to change?” And then you can read books like Factfulness, where things actually have changed significantly in the last twenty years.

The price of solar panels has dropped significantly. I see more solar now that I ever have seen before. So things are actually getting better. And then you get people denying things like climate change, and it’s like “I cannot believe people still have their head in the sand.” At some point in time, you kind of decide, “all right, what do I stand for and what am I going to do?” And you just kind of have to decide for yourself what are you going to do and what difference are you going to make in society and you kind of have to decide to stick with it no matter what.

And so I think that’s certainly why you see the different kind of agendas of politicians these days. You see organizations like EWB out there that, no matter what, we stick to the infrastructure agenda.

DANAHY: Yeah, it’s interesting to think about that interplay between the infrastructure and politics, though. So, as an organization that’s focused on the infrastructure and wanting to provide engineering solutions, you can’t ignore the politics that are sort of happening and the interplay between those two.

LESLIE: That’s correct.

DANAHY: So, how do you as an organization or how do instruct your volunteers or how when projects are being implemented do you sort of balance those pieces?

LESLIE: You just kind of, you keep moving forward. We have a climate change taskforce. We are adopting resilient infrastructure design standards. Whether people want to argue the cause of climate change, it’s happening, and our communities are being impacted as a result of it. It is harder to obtain water in a lot of our communities, period.

DANAHY: But I could think of, not just at the global policy level but even in the small communities that you’re dealing with, there could be local politics that your organization runs into within a town organization or something like that. Is there ever tension between the engineering solutions that are coming in with the projects and local leadership or local politics that your volunteers have to navigate as they’re participating in the program?

LESLIE: Sure. We do every now and then run—I won’t say afoul of local politics. But certainly, our program works in a community-driven format, and we’re very careful to make sure that the entire community is behind our solutions. So, we’re pretty careful that it’s not just one aspect of a village elder group or that we’re not working for one political party or we’re not just working for the school teachers versus the health-care providers.

And if you really work on behalf of the entire community, you kind of mitigate the political risk. Now that’s not to say that when one political party loses favor and another one comes in our projects don’t get scrapped every now and then. They do, and then we take a step back and we wait until we’re invited back into those communities again. Elections happen. Certainly with what happened in Nicaragua, we’re on hold there; our chapters cannot travel to Nicaragua until the unrest settles down there, and we just have to cope with that.

But we do focus on working in a community-driven format and we do kind of suss out if we’re just working on behalf of one political faction or another. And if we find out we’re doing that, we do take a step backwards and really try and figure out are we holistically working on behalf of the community or not, because that’s not our practice. We’re not there to be used by a faction to the benefit of their faction versus another faction.

DANAHY: So we’re seeing engineering education move from the university also down into K-12, STEM being a big push in a big field. What would you say to K-12 teachers, what advice would you give them who are working to inspire that sort of next generation of students pursing engineering, coming up through the ranks or potential future EWB participants?

LESLIE: I go back to when I was in high school, people think of engineers as just being good at math and science, and I think that definition is long gone. I think engineers and engineering are all about systems that make people’s lives much better in general, and I think engineers have to be really good at thinking about systems. And while math and science might be a part of that, it’s about the entire system of improving the quality of life.

And engineers have to be really good at thinking through a political system, at thinking through a cultural system, a social system, and then the technical piece for me is about 25 percent of that. I refer to myself as an expert generalist, and I know how to go find those technical folks to plug them in, but if I can’t think through that whole system, then I’m not doing my job, right? So I think when you think about engineers and engineering, it’s about thinking through the system that is going to make the globe and society a better place in the future.

And so, to the K-12 teachers, if you find those kids out there that can kind of dream big, and that’s kind of a term these days, a buzzword these days, but those kids that can dream big, those are the engineers of tomorrow. Not just the ones that can do math and science. Those might not be.

DANAHY: I found it interesting how you think of engineering as this sort of 25 percent math and science and the rest of it being all of these other pieces, which really points at this idea that we need to be generating well-rounded engineers—that it’s not just the ability to do math and science that sort of defines our students as engineering students. Yet, if you look at the engineering curriculum at the university, that’s not the percentage of how it would fall down, right? It’s a very heavy math and science and focus on the sort of technical components of engineering. How would you see a shift, or what kind of shift would you like to see in the engineering curriculum at the university to sort of address this sort of engineer of the future kind of concept?

LESLIE: So, in my mind, you have to get the design correct—absolutely, positively, you have to get the design correct. And I certainly don’t want to drive across any bridge that has a math error on it. So don’t get me wrong, I believe the technical components have to be very well-rounded as well. But especially in what I do, if you cannot listen to a community and if you cannot listen to a client and understand their outcomes and translate those outcomes into a solution that works, you’re wrong before you even start into that design component.

And I also think that in the future, where we’re going to be running out of resources, and the problems are so much more complex than we’ve been facing before, if we can’t think in an interdisciplinary and a cross-connected way, we’re going to run out of time. So, if you put all that together, engineers of tomorrow cannot think in the siloed approach, and they’re going to have to think in a way that blends not only the technical but weaves together the silos, right? So what does that mean? It means that they have to think in a systems approach, that they have to learn to listen, that they have to work in a team-based environment, and they have to work across cultures.

So somewhere, somehow, our curriculums have to blend that together. So, that means that we have to quit taking stuff out of curricula and put it back in. Now I know that folks are working on that and they’re working on doing it in a way that keeps to the four years or tries to be innovative and keeps to the four year, but I know that I took a lot more classes when I graduated than folks do today.

So, I would guess that the schools that accomplish this the most are going to get rid of the siloed approach and that, instead of working on a silo, they’re going to work in an interdisciplinary approach, and are going to do things that maybe focus on water or focus on climate change, or focus on a topic instead of focus on electrical engineering. Curricula are going to have to become as innovative as the solutions are going to have to be out there. I don’t have all the magic answers, I just know that we’re going to have to do something different and we’re going to have to accelerate it.

DANAHY: But I love the idea of thematic-based education where we’re sort of doing projects within a context, as opposed to breaking education down into a series of little problem sets around particular content. Is that the type of thing I’m hearing from you?

LESLIE: It is. And I think that’s what has made EWB so successful. So, when I came here to Tufts, there were civil engineers, there were electrical engineers, there were mechanical engineers, there were biomedical engineers, and it’s very, very rare for our chapters to be solely one discipline. In fact, you can’t solve the problems in the communities that we have with one discipline. It just doesn’t work. We grew very, very, very quickly and we can talk about all sorts of problems that we had as a result of that growth, but one of the things that resulted was interdisciplinary chapters or multi-discipline chapters, very diverse chapters, that all came together as a result of solving a community problem. I think that’s the way our education needs to go as well.

DANAHY: So, as we wrap up, is there something about yourself or your organization that folks might not know? Is there sort of a fun fact that you’d be willing to share?

LESLIE: Well, as I tell everybody in my introduction, I started my career in the Peace Corps and that’s really where I got introduced to working with developing communities. And, in the Peace Corps you get a lot of different things: illnesses and diseases, are just a couple of them. The Peace Corps is notorious for that. But in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I met my husband and I got malaria—one of which I still have today, so people can guess which one.

But volunteerism, you hear a lot about the good and bad things of volunteerism these days. Volunteerism can be really meaningful if you know what you’re doing and you’re working with an organization that does know what they’re doing. With EWB, engineering can change the world and we’re doing that every day. So, if you’re going to volunteer, make sure you do it with an organization that has that credibility on the ground and make sure you know what difference you’re going to make.

DANAHY: Well, thank you so much, Cathy for joining us here at Tufts University and sharing all these great stories about Engineers Without Borders.

LESLIE: Well thank you, it’s been a wonderful time. Tufts is a great place to go.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Steffan Hacker, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. Anna Miller edited this episode and Julie Flaherty wrote the introduction. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Lynne Powers. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time, be well!

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