Q+A: ER Engineering

Bernard Amadei on founding Engineers Without Borders, saving kids from prostitution and becoming a clown


Bernard Amadei grew up as the son and grandson of bricklayers in Roubaix, an industrial city in northern France. He is the founder of Engineers Without Borders-USA and a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. A member of the National Academy of Engineering and a recipient of the Hoover Medal and other awards, Amadei served as science envoy for the U.S. Department of State from 2012 to 2014.    

Bernard Amadei’s Engineers Without Borders USA has done more than 600 projects in 48 countries (including Nepal, above).

I’d love for you to tell the story about the little girls in Belize who changed your life.

So what happened is, to make a long story short, in 1999 to 2000, I was on sabbatical and was invited to go to Belize. That was really my first experience in what some people call a developing country.

I came across one village by the name of San Pablo. In that dominantly Mayan village, I was told that little girls, essentially, were carrying water and they had to do chores at home, and as a result they could not go to school. So they asked me, Can you do something about it, since you’re a civil engineer? I told them that, you know, wow, yes, I sure could do something. But that’s not really my field of engineering. At that time, I was doing more publishing and perishing type of work.

I asked myself a bunch of questions — you know, who does engineering for the developing world? We always do engineering for the one to two billion people on our planet — fancy engineering, bigger, better, larger. What about the other four to five billion? Grassroots-types of engineering about issues such as water, food, energy? And I realized that that was not a topic that was taught in engineering schools.

And then in 2001, I came back to the University of Colorado. I talked to some students in my class about the project and very quickly four, five, even 10 students came to my office, really excited, and they said, Hey, can we be a part of that project? That came as a surprise to me — a good surprise! — and I said, OK, this is a one-time deal. We can go over there, we’ll build a pump and bring it to San Pablo. And so the students took the challenge and built what we call a ram pump, a 200-year-old technology. Essentially, what you do is that you use the energy of a nearby waterfall and convert it into pressure energy and push the water up. Initially, we built two prototypes and tested them in Boulder. The students, a local technician, Denis Walsh, and I raised $14,000 and traveled to Belize in May 2001. The pump was installed, failed a couple of times, and a different system was installed in 2002.

The students came to me after the first trip and said, Hey, we should do more. Why don’t we create an organization called Engineers Without Borders? But I said, No, you leave me alone! I’m into publishing and do not want to perish, you know; I’m busy with my stuff.

But they persisted …

They said, No, no, no, we really want to do that! We want more projects like that.

And the students brought me kicking and screaming to create Engineers Without Borders-USA. I can tell you that, because it did not really fit into any of my obligations at the university. In fact, at the beginning, after one year of doing projects like that, the chairman of my department came along and said, Hey, you’re supposed to do service to the university, but not that kind of service. So you know, at the beginning — in fact, by the first five years — a few things happened. More people heard about what we were doing, a few chapters were started, and today we have close to 300 student and professional chapters and 17,000 members across the U.S., and about 600 projects in 48 countries. In short, the chairman of the department was wrong, but the students were right.

At one point you attended a clown school. Tell us about that.

I was interested in the clowning aspect, again, from the service point of view, not necessarily to work in a circus. So I went to the Denver, Colorado, clown school, and I even got my degree. It’s even posted in my office.


Yeah, no, it’s serious. I could take a picture of it! It’s right there! It says Colorado College of Clowning, and that’s really the only diploma that’s hanging in my office. The others are too common, anyway. But this one, nobody else has it. I think it was for me a discovery of the art of clowning. You know, clowning, it’s serious business. Anybody can put some makeup on, but there’s real skill involved. There is a big difference between a clown and a Bozo.

It’s funny, you mention this being an act of service. Most people probably don’t think of clowning as an act of service.

Well, to me, it was to help, especially with children. I mean, I remember going several times to the oncology section of Children’s Hospital in Denver. You’re walking into a room where the child has cancer. You cannot go into a room like that and say, “Hey, how are you today?” How do you bring a smile to the parents and a kid who has cancer? To me it was, at that time — I’m not doing it anymore — something I thought I needed to do, and it was also a way to put a funny mask on the face of a professor. As an academic, we are supposed to be serious. So, it was for me giving myself a condition to be a different person, and to be joyful and make people laugh. I don’t usually make people laugh when I give a lecture!

Tell us about your work in Afghanistan and how engineering better fuel sources helped rescue some 20 children from a prostitution ring.

I went to Afghanistan seven times from 2003 to 2010.… As I traveled there, I also visited Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic University, and I remember walking into the university and literally the building was ready to collapse. There were bullet holes everywhere, shell holes everywhere, no heat pretty much, a cold place, and yet there is one picture I’ve never forgotten: in a room, super cold, no electricity, there were maybe 10 students covered with robes, cold, listening to a professor teaching a class. They did not have a blackboard, so they had stretched a plastic sheet on the wall, and he was working on it. And I thought, Whoa, these people are really dedicated despite the war. I remember going to the library at Kabul University and it was completely empty. The books that were left on the shelves all had bullet holes through the middle of them. The Taliban had essentially been shooting each book purposely to destroy any Western ideas. There were big bullet holes through the middle.

In the meantime, I became aware of this technology from a colleague in Nepal on how to use waste and create what we call fuel briquettes.

When you say waste, waste from what?

It could be organic waste — paper, sawdust, rice husks, the shells of peanuts. And there was plenty of it! Just lying in the streets. The wood they were getting at the time was coming from Pakistan, so it was really expensive. And I said, “Wow. Since those people don’t have wood to stay warm, why don’t we create a small enterprise?” In collaboration with an NGO called Afghans for Tomorrow, we found 20 young men in Afghanistan, young boys essentially, who were prostitutes, and took them off the streets of Kabul and trained them to make those briquettes. They would go to a site, a place where they would be safe and have fresh clothes and a meal at lunch. I don’t think they could sleep overnight there, but the idea was to give them an alternative and to be able to sell those briquettes to people who needed a substitute for wood. And it really broke my heart when I saw those children.

One thing led to another, the briquettes became quite famous, and a group of women in Bamyan, Afghanistan — the place where they have the giant Buddhas — wanted to learn how to make those briquettes. In one summer, they made half a million there — 500,000 briquettes that they were selling to different people in that neighborhood.

So the idea was developing a technology where kids could make briquettes without hurting themselves and the briquettes would be used such that they could be sold on the market in the streets of Kabul as a replacement for wood. So that was really a success story. Afghans for Tomorrow also used the profits of briquette making to create a school for 200 girls in Kabul.

What is your dangerous idea? What’s a belief that you hold that may be controversial, or counterintuitive, or like our friend Galileo, maybe just a bit ahead of its time?

Well, that’s an interesting one. I am a big disrupter. I love to disrupt. Being French, that works very well. A few weeks ago, I fell off my bike and hurt myself bad. Where did I go? Emergency room. What happened in the emergency room? They did a bunch of tests, really expensive ones, to make sure I did not have internal bleeding, blah, blah, blah. Half an hour later, they knew what was going on. OK, so that’s called “ER” type of medicine.

Now imagine the same kind of thing from an engineering point of view. Five hundred thousand people cross the border after an earthquake. They all need water, they all need energy, they all need food, they all need to stay warm, they need security, they are going to poop everywhere. How do I dispose of the waste? What kind of engineering, what kind of triage do I need to do? Who takes care of that today? There’s not a single program around the world that trains engineers to do work in emergency situations. Look, for instance, at the conditions in refugee camps today.

Now imagine a program at the graduate level, a master’s degree in “ER Engineering,” for lack of a better word, and I can tell you, there is plenty of funding and the demand is there. I mean, look at refugee issues around the world, whether it’s climate-related or not, warrelated or disaster-related.