Peter J. Bosscher
Civil and Environmental Engineering
When Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Peter J. Bosscher was young, his family provided him opportunities to participate in projects involving recycling, care for children in inner cities, and teaching English to Vietnamese refugees.
Throughout his life, he has continued such activities and today, as the founder and advisor of UW-Madison's chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Bosscher uses that instilled sense of social integrity and responsibility to educate engineering students about the global effects of their work. "Just doing the best technology is not sufficient," he says. "You have to think about larger issues."
The group, he says, provides students with a new context to carry out engineering in which they have to think outside the boxes of the developed world. "At the same time, it brings good things to the lives of the people in the communities in which they're working," says Bosscher.
For the past three summers, Bosscher and other EWB members have traveled to the war-torn African country of Rwanda to help residents build sustainable basic infrastructure systems, including a gravity-fed system that supplies water for Muramba, a community of about 9,000 villagers and 3,000 schoolchildren. This summer, the group added water sources to the community, improved the quantity of water, and improved the quality of water through solar pasteurization. Members demonstrated solar food cookers (a simple box lined with aluminum foil and covered with glass — a system that takes advantage of the area's high altitude and intense sunlight) and showed residents how to make fuel out of discarded organic materials like paper and garden waste. They also helped to open markets for Rwandan products such as handcrafts and artwork.
At home, Bosscher encourages his students to consider the societal, ethical, environmental, economical and other impacts of the products they engineer. There are products, he says, for the developed world. "But I think we'll have a much larger impact for the plight of those five billion poor people who truly need the products we have at the moment," he says. "It's not like we're developing brand-new technologies. We're literally bringing the very simplest, but the most profound, gifts to them that we can: clean water, clean air, health, diminishment of deforestation, transportation, markets for their products — the very basics of life. To sort of ignore that and just continue to live in our own small worlds, where resources are plentiful — I think that is not a sustainable practice."