Kenya water project adjusts professor's focus

October 8, 2010

Ernest "Chip" Blatchley (left), professor of civil engineering, works with students from his Global Engineering service learning class on location in Kenya in May. Blatchley, whose research focuses on water quality, led the students as they constructed a sand filtration water treatment system for use by a girls' boarding school and the surrounding community. (Photo by Bruce Cooley)

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As an environmental engineer, Ernest "Chip" Blatchley has spent his career thinking about water. A year ago, following a trip to Kenya, he expanded his thinking on a global scale, and has since been on a quest to find ways to deliver safe drinking water where it is most needed.

Blatchley, professor of civil engineering, was introduced to Kenya through the Purdue-Moi University partnership, a collaborative effort that focuses on water. The focus on water in developing nations is, in fact, a topic of increasing interest among academics, he says. It is also a topic of interest among students.

Working with the Global Engineering Program, Blatchley taught a service-learning class last spring that developed a water filter for use at a girls' boarding school near the Moi campus. In May, he took the students to Africa, where they worked alongside Moi students and professors to build and install the sand filter.

"The experiences, the people we met, the people we interacted with come from a very different culture than we come from," he says. "It broadened all of our horizons."

More than a cultural exchange, though, the project also opened the team's eyes to the challenges of global engineering.

"As engineers, we know how to treat water, but we don't know how to deal with the economic, political and social challenges," Blatchley says. "The problems we have to overcome are not the ones we, as engineers, are used to dealing with. In developed countries, nontechnical issues don't get in the way. But in developing countries, the nontechnical constraints we have to deal with are profound. We're the ones who need to do the learning. "

On the ground in North America, Blatchley is continuing his focus on assuring clean water for developing nations through his role as a board member of Aqua Clara, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing affordable, clean water in developing nations.

Two of his graduate students also are dedicated to the cause. Steven Berube, a master's student, is working with the Moi partnership at the interface of economics and engineering. And doctoral candidate Eric Gentil Mbonipa, a native of Rwanda, is developing a method of disinfection using solar radiation. 

Blatchley is also part of the Purdue Water Community, a cross-disciplinary collective of faculty, staff and students working to address water-related issues. PWC is part of the University's Global Sustainability Initiative, which includes the Center for the Environment, the Energy Center and the Purdue Climate Change Research Center.

"The things that motivate me as a researcher are the opportunities to do something that benefits other people," Blatchley says. "There's the humanitarian aspect and then there's the academic one, and there are things that we can pursue at the interfaces."