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Jay Rockwell

In January 2014, Jay Rockwell, a field engineer at Bechtel’s Australia Pacific LNG project, swapped Curtis Island in Queensland for rural Cambodia, after he was selected to participate in the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia Humanitarian Design Summit.

As a Summit mentor, Rockwell spent two weeks providing leadership and technical advice to 40 university students involved in a sustainable design project for a Cambodian community. “My job was to be a resource to the students, providing feedback and answering any design questions,” Rockwell says. 

Following a short stay in Phnom Penh, Rockwell arrived at the Sophia Saly School in Kep Province. He and his university group were tasked with identifying sustainable solutions for several problems at the site, including a chronic water shortage.

Just as engineering at Bechtel is about creating a product that fits a customer’s requirements, humanitarian engineering is about understanding what a community needs and producing designs that addresses those needs and suits their capabilities.

Surrounded by salt flats and minimal vegetation, the school lacks freshwater for its 200 students and six teachers—a problem that contributes to low attendance and makes it hard to retain staff. “Residents collect rain during the wet season, but that’s usually gone within a couple of months,” Rockwell says. “During the dry season, villagers walk several kilometers to a small mountain spring, or they import costly fresh water by truck.”

Other challenges result from the condition of the land. The community pumps seawater onto the bordering salt flats. This water evaporates, and the remaining salt is collected and sold. The resulting salty soil prevents trees or grass from growing near the school. This creates a poor learning environment and makes it too dusty for children to play outside.

Rockwell and the EWB students also learned about the home lives of the school’s children, finding that many live without running water or electricity in poorly ventilated homes. “The homes we visited were often filled with smoke from wood-burning stoves,” Rockwell says. Students also lack water for basic hygiene, like hand washing, he adds. 

After their community visit, the group returned to Phnom Penh, where they developed three prototype sustainable engineering designs: a simple stove to improve ventilation, a water-saving hand-washing device, and a method of removing salt from seawater. All three meet the criteria for “appropriate technology,” which Rockwell says aligns engineering with community needs and capabilities, and addresses long-term operability and maintenance constraints. 

“Just as engineering at Bechtel is about creating a product that fits a customer’s requirements, humanitarian engineering is about understanding what a community needs and producing designs that addresses those needs and suits their capabilities,” Rockwell says. 

“Volunteering for engineering projects in developing countries, such as those supported by EWB, is an excellent way to develop an understanding of appropriate technology, while using your knowledge and skills to help communities grow,” he adds.