In Brooks County, about 165 miles south of San Antonio, Trinity engineering science majors Kathryn Schoer ’17 and James Regan ’17 prepare to enter a deadly stretch of land that’s claimed the lives of more than 600 migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this decade alone.
It’s a cool October morning, and the elements at the Copa North Ranch—one of the countless, massive ranches that straddle the Texas Borderlands—seem benign at first. Low-hanging trees sway under a gentle breeze that also ruffles through the thick, green-brown underbrush, stirring up fluttering orange butterflies.
But there’s a threat lurking underneath this peaceful scene: thirst. To a migrant, perhaps one fleeing civil strife, violence, or destitution, reaching America means walking hundreds of miles through ranchlands like these, where water is all but impossible to find. And as thirst sets in, this previously rustic paradise turns into hell on earth. The Texas sun beats down relentlessly, the peaceful wind kicks up choking dust, and the thick, labyrinth-like South Texas brush creates more of an obstacle than most man-made barriers could ever dream of doing. That same brush also harbors venomous snakes, while hundreds of vultures circle overhead ominously.
So, Schoer and Regan have a simple plan: With the permission of the property owner, they’re installing a wireless-connected, solar-powered water station on the ranch. People passing through will be able to take bottled water right out of the bright blue 55-gallon barrel.
“This is humanitarian aid,” Schoer says. “We’re providing water to individuals who are dehydrated, disoriented—it’s meant to save lives.”
Schoer and Regan, along with a team of Trinity engineering science students, have spent the past year developing a prototype for this advanced water station. The project was initially part of a senior design project, one of many completed annually by Trinity engineering science students. Education professor Angela Breidenstein initially suggested tackling this humanitarian issue, pitching the idea to the engineering science department, where Schoer and Regan’s team picked up the work.
For the station, Regan, Schoer, and the rest of the team came up with designs for a sturdy, high-density polyethylene base shaped like a hollow box with a circular hole to hold a large water barrel. On a waterproofed side compartment, a compact set of wires connects a battery to more wires running up through a hollow, 20-foot pole connected to the base; on the pole, a 30-watt solar panel, LED lighting, and a Red Cross flag.
In short, this system is designed to hold water, attract attention both night and day, and let aid workers know when the station needs to be refilled, has been tipped over, or is damaged—all for about $2,000 worth of materials.
“It’s not a perfect design,” says Regan, who also designed an online tool that can help aid workers interface with the station remotely. “But it’s going to help people who are in an unfortunate situation.”
Trinity’s project stands on the shoulders of an existing system of water stations installed by Eddie Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center. Canales has spent the past four years installing about 100 similar water barrel stations across nearly 1,200 square miles of South Texas ranchland.
Canales’ system has already helped save countless lives, but he says the Trinity team’s advanced prototype could help save even more.
“Our initial effort was meant to keep people from dying,” Canales says. “But we had a very rudimentary set of water stations. No electronics, no solar power, no wireless. This new prototype ... this is a project that is going to serve right away and save lives.”
On this overcast October day, with swirling winds and rumbling rain clouds overhead, the group has met with Canales to install this first prototype at Copa North, just outside of Falfurrias, Texas. The group packs into two trucks led by Canales, and stocks up a truck bed full of water gallons to restock some of the existing water stations, before setting out to find a suitable location on the ranch for the new prototype.
Canales has worked tirelessly to negotiate with local ranch owners for access to their property, often pitching them the idea that it’s better to live with migrants passing through their property and leaving alive than continually finding dead bodies in their backyards. As the group pulls through the Copa North gate, this collaboration is on full display. Ranch hands wave Canales, Schoer, and Regan along a dusty path—Copa North is vast enough to warrant its own green street signs— without hesitation. Some smile at the group, others turn away wearily. The Trinity team also passes a group of green-uniformed DPS officers on a training exercise, and the officers even pause to offer Canales help with directions.
As the group passes existing water stations, the importance of the Trinity team’s upgrades becomes clear. Some installations have had their barrels and flags stolen or vandalized, others battered by the elements. At one station, the flagpole tilts achingly to the south, its tattered white flag listless, almost as if hung in surrender.
“You can see: these things have to be tough,” Canales remarks.
For Regan, these are the type of high stakes he came to Trinity to encounter.
“With Trinity students, whether they’re studying a STEM subject like engineering or biology or computer science or one of the humanities, there’s something they know a lot about,” Regan says. “On projects like this … you can say, ‘I’m helping,’ and I’m helping with the things I learned at Trinity.”
“This was one of the first issues I’ve ever seen where I realized, ‘I could actually help with this; I know enough to do that,’” Regan continues.
Moving further down the path, the group travels along a road running alongside a thin-wire 12-foot deer fence. The group marvels at the sheer number of bent wires where migrants have presumably scaled the obstacle; for more than half a mile of fence, there’s not a single segment where the wire hasn’t been bent.
At last, the group spots a suitable location for the prototype — a small clearing along the barrier near a large gap in the nearby brush. It’s clear this is a heavily-traveled crossing, so the group starts assembling the station.
Until this point, the project has been hypothetical. Schoer and Regan have prepared the prototype as well as possible, meticulously designing, ordering material, and prepping for the installation. But as any engineer will tell you, moving plans from paper to a field installation can open up a world of problems.
“I really could have used more wire,” Schoer notes, weaving electronics into place. As Regan assists, fiddling with a battery, he uses a knife and tape to gently connect other exposed metal filaments.
To complicate matters, the group hears a rumbling on the horizon. The same rain clouds that brought a relieving shade earlier now pose a threat to the exposed electronics. Schoer and Regan race against the oncoming precipitation—in an almost Hollywood-level, cut-the-blue-wire scenario—before finally connecting, arranging, and sealing the device. Future models, Schoer hopes, will have a pre-packaged, modular set of electronics that will make for an easier install in the field.
“That’s the great thing about engineering: There’s no final solution to a problem,” Schoer says. “Technology is always evolving. My hope is that if future generations can start improving this project, they can make it more compact, or more energy efficient. They can take what we have learned and improve upon it.”
Despite their difficulties with the rain and the wiring, Regan offers a good-natured assessment of the group’s handiwork.
“Having difficulties with the prototype is good luck,” he laughs. “I’d be more worried if we didn’t have anything go wrong at first—that would be bad luck.”
Schoer and Regan credit their poise under pressure to Trinity’s experiential take on engineering science.
“Trinity’s engineering science program is very unique compared to programs at other universities,” Schoer says. “We have a design sequence where every semester we are in groups doing design work, lab reports, and presentations. We have to be able to take our ideas and express them on a technical level.”
But expressing these ideas on a simplified level is important, too, since Schoer and Regan can’t install every water station in the future. They’ll need to pass that responsibility onto volunteers, perhaps ones with less technical knowledge.
“Even if you have the ideas in your head, you still have to be able to clearly explain those,” says Schoer, effortlessly explaining each bit of electronics while racing against the clock. “Trinity prepares you for that during all four years.”
As the group threads the wiring through the flagpole and pushes the entire apparatus into the air, the station cuts a striking sight. The team raises the Red Cross flag; the banner unfurls slowly, nicked by a steady stream of rain droplets but pushed ever outwards by a growing breeze. And as the wind picks up and the flag flutters powerfully in the wind, Canales, Regan, and Schoer let out a collective cheer.
“Many STEM disciplines, you think, ‘O.K., I have to go through five years of research, then a prototype testing, then another five years of revisions, and the society can’t even use your work until 15 years down the road,” Schoer says. “But this project was really the complete opposite: With humanitarian work, you can take your work, be ingenious with it, and create a project that can be used right away.”
Driving away, Schoer, Regan, and Canales look back at the water station prototype, wondering aloud how long it will take for a passerby to stumble upon the barrel—how long the project will take to save a life.
And while future generations of Trinity engineering students might work to make the station more energy-efficient or cost-effective, Canales says the prototype is already worth the day’s effort.
“Even if this only saves one life,” he notes, “You can’t put a price on that.”