This, here, is one FINE treadle pump…

Engineers without Borders is going to be hosting their 2nd annual “Designs for a Sustainable World.” Details can be found here, but below is a picture of last years winning entry, plus an initial edit of a piece I wrote about the event (which eventually made its way to MAKE magazine).


The day began with a heavy rainfall warning. Which seemed only appropriate given the challenge at hand. This was the first annual Designs for a Sustainable World, an event hosted and coordinated by Engineers Without Borders, and with the support of the University of British Columbia’s Sustainability Office. In essence, about a dozen detailed scenarios that outlined a social equity problem within a specific country were described to student participants. Here, the scenarios were generally connected to economic or environmental considerations, and often in a country where basic infrastructure may be lacking. And from these set-ups, the participants would work in teams, and be asked to design a contraption that could provide a tangible solution to the problem presented. However, such design would be carried out with one important constraint – that is, everything would essentially need to be built in a short timeframe and from what could only be described as garbage, materials deemed as waste at the hosting University. Think of it as an ultra sustainable episode of Junkyard Wars, but with a heavy dose of social responsibility. In some respects, the rain warning would only kick it up a notch.

So for six hours, from the shrill of the starting whistle and the initial mad scurry to the “pile”, 12 teams of students armed with a few power tools, set upon their task. They were focused on things like increasing peanut processing efficiencies in Bangladesh; devising ways to lower carbon dioxide emissions in China; helping a rural Belarus farm lower their dependence on fossil fuels; or capturing fresh water from the misty climes of coastal Ireland. In the end, a winning team emerged: Kara Serenius, Hessam Khajeei, Galvin Clancey, and Gaby Wong who, in their efforts to provide a safe mechanism of ground water recovery, had managed to construct a fully human powered treadle pump. In fact, it could be argued that the loudest cheer during the event was when it was demonstrated to work.

Yifeng Song, one of the coordinators of the Designs for a Sustainable World perhaps said it best: “I believe that one of the greatest achievements of this student initiated event is the fact that it brought students from engineering, forestry, environmental science, anthropology, history, and genetics together working on a commongoal to develop new approaches to environmental issues. The success of the event and the motivation of the students involved are both living proofs of the desire of today’s youth to have a positive impact on the world of tomorrow.” In the end, it didn’t rain – a good sign for this inaugural run.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at