Mentoring Students, Providing Clean Water in Panama

Mar 5, 2015 9:05 AM ET

AECOM Impact blog

AECOM's Scott Underhill, a registered professional engineer, shares his experience mentoring a group of students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, as part of an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) trip to provide clean water in Isla Popa, Panama.

In mid-November 2014, Carsten Floess — a geotechnical engineer with AECOM and an adjunct professor at RPI in Troy, New York — sent out an email requesting volunteer travel mentors for the EWB chapter at RPI.

The project required the installation of a rainwater collection system on Isla Popa, a remote island in the Caribbean off the coast of Panama. The exotic location and timing of the trip — early January 2015, a mere eight weeks from when the email was sent — caught my attention. Having installed water systems in Zimbabwe and Haiti over the past several years for humanitarian groups, the idea of volunteering for this project resonated with me. After getting approval from my wife and kids and buy-in from the RPI EWB board, I was committed. I knew no one from the organization and very little about the project, but for me, this was great. Usually, I was the one planning and organizing these projects, so to stand back and act as a technical resource was fantastic.

The students from RPI had been spending years planning this project. During three trips in as many years, they had gained the information they needed to install the system on the roof of one of the pavilions on the island’s small school. We met three times prior to the trip to get to know each other and for me to gain an understanding of the project. On paper, everything looked good, and everyone was excited.

We arrived on the Isla Popa on a Tuesday afternoon with a barge full of sand, cement, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and two 600-gallon storage tanks. These materials were essential to the project, but weren’t available on the island, so we had to plan months in advance to purchase them on Isla Boca, the nearest island in Panama with a supply store. Once we purchased the materials, it took us three hours to transport them by barge to the island, where the community greeted us at the dock and carried all of the supplies up to the school — a good quarter mile up a hill. Over the next five days, we worked in intense sun and then rain, watching our work area transition from grass to mud. By the last day, as the tank was installed and the rain gutters put in place, we were covered in mud. And in the rain, we saw the first flush system get filled and then overflow into the collection tank, we were overjoyed! Job completed. No lessons learned? Hardly.

The students learned that materials in the U.S. are not the same quality as the materials in remote areas. When you have to drill pilot holes (small holes drilled before driving a screw into a piece of wood) to drive nails in, you know you are dealing with tough wood.

My favorite experience was watching a senior at RPI, who designed the PVC collection gutters, become frustrated because the PVC pipe was neither schedule 40 (pipe wall thickness measurement) nor fitting properly. Finally, he came to me and said, “What should I do?” I looked over to the four local hired helpers watching and said, “Ask them.” Within a few hours, we all stood back to see the gutters securely in place.

Everyone on the trip learned so much. Many Americans don’t even know where their water comes from, but all of the people on the Isla Popa do. For them, water comes from a storage tank.

Check out more blog posts on corporate social responsibility in the AECOM Impact blog!


AECOM is a premier, fully integrated professional and technical services firm positioned to design, build, finance and operate infrastructure assets around the world for public- and private-sector clients. With nearly 100,000 employees — including architects, engineers, designers, planners, scientists and management and construction services professionals — serving clients in over 150 countries around the world, AECOM is ranked as the #1 engineering design firm by revenue in Engineering News-Record magazine’s annual industry rankings, and has been recognized by Fortune magazine as a World’s Most Admired Company. The company is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, oil and gas, water, high-rise buildings and government. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence in delivering customized and creative solutions that meet the needs of clients’ projects. A Fortune 500 firm, AECOM companies, including URS Corporation and Hunt Construction Group, had revenue of approximately $19 billion during the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2014. More information on AECOM and its services can be found at

Media Contact:
Ed Mayer
Vice President, Corporate Communications