ESW member Mitch Samson mans the rod while surveying a small brook at the ranch of Mariano Dominguez. Photo courtesy of Thomas Kunetz.

When our student group was sent to rural Panama to survey, we did not expect to come back with more than just a “point and shoot” experience. We’re with the Northwestern University chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), a worldwide nonprofit organization of engineering students, professors and professionals with the mission of reducing poverty and improving global sustainability. Founded in 2001, the current 25 ESW chapters undertake both local and international projects, in partnerships with non-governmental organizations in the host country.

ESW’s involvement in Panama began in the spring of 2005 when it connected with its Panamanian partner organizations to embark on two environmental and humanitarian projects in rural areas. The first was to bring solar energy and an improved water supply to the remote ranching community of Santo Domingo, and the second was to provide wastewater treatment to the picturesque coastal town of Portobelo.

By summer 2006, both projects needed detailed topographic data in order to proceed. Unlike the well-mapped Canal Zone, neither town had been surveyed with usable accuracy, so ESW made plans to send four members on a three-week expedition to survey possible sites and collect related data for the projects. This required operating a total station to create topographic maps and obtain additional grade elevations. So, my team members and I embarked on our first surveying experience in an exotic country.

While surveying Portobelo’s Guinea neighborhood, ESW team members Mitch Samson and Salihah Noh give local kids a peek through the total station. Photo courtesy of Thomas Kunetz.

The Journey Before the Journey: Learning to Survey

The first challenge was no small one: our team needed to access equipment and learn how to survey. ESW didn’t have its own total station or accessories, and of the four team members on the expedition, the only one with any prior exposure to surveying was our advisor Tom Kunetz, PE, assistant chief engineer at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD). We all had to learn from the ground up.

When I found out that I would need to survey for the trip, the first thought that crossed my mind was that I had no clue what it was about. Being a biomedical engineering student, I had been taught to use information from a topographic map or plot, but was never exposed to the actual surveying behind it. Although we signed on to the project with little knowledge of surveying, my team members and I were lucky enough to receive help from several people and organizations who were crucial to the success of our trip.

Before leaving for Panama, we were trained in both the theory and practice of surveying by Robert Walsh, chief surveyor of the MWRD. He taught us the basic functions of a total station and how to handle the accompanying instrumentation and accessories, such as the data collector and prism pole. We practiced setting up the equipment, communicating between the rod and instrument people, and operating the data collector. Personally, I had the most difficulty getting the total station level. Experience was key; the more we practiced, the faster we were able to level and center the total station over the ground point. Even the smoothness of the communication of our group improved. After each training session, we gained more confidence in ourselves to do the job in Panama. Team leader Adrian Jinich was the most enthusiastic.

“We’ll do our own Jinich-Noh line across Panama!” he said, referring to the famous Mason-Dixon line.

While the group received instruction on how to operate surveying instrumentation, we still needed to borrow a total station and data collector to take with us. Kara Company Inc., a leading firm in measuring systems based in Countryside, Ill., graciously provided us with the necessary equipment: a Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) SET 6 with an Allegro CE data collector. The combination was fairly simple to use, even for first-timers like us. We did the data processing with Carlson (Maysville, Ky.) Survey, Roads & Field 2006 stand-alone package and Carlson SurvCE 1.61.

Armed with the survey equipment and some basic knowledge of how to use it, we left for Panama in late August. Once in the field, we were faced with challenge after challenge that tested our training, teamwork and ability to cope with stress. I learned firsthand that surveying is a tough job, both physically and mentally, compounded by unpredictable weather, equipment glitches and the requirement to do strenuous hiking to remote areas. Nevertheless, the experience had its rewards.

ESW’s environmental and humanitarian projects in Panama were to bring solar energy and a new sustainable water source to the remote ranching community of Santo Domingo and to provide wastewater treatment to the picturesque coastal town of Portobelo.

The Jungles of Santo Domingo

Our first stop was Santo Domingo, a tiny isolated community in the heart of lush Chagres National Park. The majority of villagers are cattle ranchers in need of a new sustainable water source for their cattle. Currently, the animals drink directly from streams, which exacerbates soil erosion on the steep banks, reducing the productivity of the land. In addition, direct defecation into the streams poses a health risk to communities downstream. ESW hopes to reduce these problems by installing watering troughs fed from a water intake in the stream. For the project to progress from the conceptual stage to design, we had to collect survey data including the distances and elevation changes between likely water intake and outlet points to determine whether a pump would be needed. If it was needed, we would have to provide data critical to pump and piping design.

The survey in Santo Domingo presented many challenges, particularly because we were using the equipment in the field for the first time. In one instance, the data collector was not detected by the total station (or vice versa). Despite the intense training we had received from the MWRD’s Walsh, we could not figure out what was wrong. We had set up the equipment the same way we had during our training sessions with him. In the middle of the jungle, with no cell phone reception and no instructors or professors to answer our questions, we racked our brains, checked our notes and discussed potential fixes, all to no avail.

As the person in charge of data collection, I was becoming more and more frustrated and disappointed. Doubts streamed through my head as we stood in the middle of the jungle, unable to call anybody to troubleshoot. Did I set up the data collector incorrectly? Did I not pay enough attention as Bob Walsh gave instructions? Were my notes incomplete?

As early morning became late afternoon and as the pressure from deadlines became stronger, the group grew tense. We still had three other farms to survey, yet we were scheduled to leave Santo Domingo for the other town the next morning. Desperation led to determination as we realized we had to find a way to contact Walsh for advice. We decided to hike to a mountainous area nearby to search for a cell phone signal, which took almost 40 minutes and required lugging all the equipment along. Our physical and mental capabilities were definitely tested.

With cell phone in hand, we wandered randomly on the mountain trying to detect reception. Finally, our call went through, though the signal was not strong. As the phone beeped indicating low battery, we strained to listen to Walsh’s muffled voice as he provided precious instructions.

Eventually, his guidance set us on the right path. We finally figured out what he was talking about when he mentioned “resetting the rate.” Apparently, we had to adjust the baud rate of the data collector communications settings for it to be in sync with the total station. At last, the unit functioned and we were able to collect data.

Our next challenge was surveying sites in the area’s unique terrain. At the second farm we visited, we had to set up our survey station at a small creek. The creek was pristine and teeming with aquatic life, surrounded by lush, beautiful wild flowers. While beautiful, the environment created difficulty for us in setting up the equipment. Rocks were everywhere, so line of sight and stability were problematic. For many of the shots, we had to move our setup to another point and correctly account for the position of our new instrument station. This again tested our physical capabilities, as it was difficult to hike up the creek carrying the full load of the total station at the same time. Alternatively, we had one of the farmers cut down some of the smaller trees in the way with a machete. At many points, we had to make further accommodations, such as carrying the equipment on a horse up and down muddy paths or using a machete to make wooden stakes to mark a point.

The challenges of Santo Domingo taught us several lessons. The first incident with the data collector improved our ability to handle glitches in our instruments and be flexible in our schedule. The difficult terrain stretched our crucial team communications, particularly between the person holding the rod and the person doing the sightings. From these lessons, we were excited to test our newfound knowledge in a different setting.

ESW team members Tom Kunetz and Adrian Jinich wade across a jungle river to measure its cross-section. Photo courtesy of Salihah Noh.

On the Colorful Caribbean Coast

Our second surveying project was in Portobelo, a small town of 1,200 people located in the Colon Province on the Atlantic side of the isthmus. The area has a rich history as a Spanish colonial outpost, boasting several 16th to 18th century landmarks, among them Fort San Jerónimo and Fort San Fernando. The town has deep religious roots and a vibrant present-day culture as well; each year, thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit the Black Christ Statue in San Felipe Church.

Even with this colorful history and culture, the area currently faces several concerns as it tries to meet its water and sanitation needs. ESW’s project in the town is to build a wastewater treatment system to improve public health, environmental quality and tourism appeal. Our trip focused on surveying possible sites for the new system.

To be able to do this, we were thankful for the professional experience of Tom Kunetz, the professional engineer on our team. He helped us focus on the factors that would be important to the wastewater treatment design team.

But the town’s disorganized layout did not make our task easy. Regulations for construction are not strict, resulting in an unplanned jumble of buildings. This made it particularly challenging for us to identify which areas we needed to survey, and created line-of-sight problems for the surveying as well. We had to keep moving the total station and backsighting the previous instrument stations. This took more time than we anticipated. But at the end of our first working day, we had become quite good at setup of the station, as well as communicating with each other.

We faced an additional challenge when we had to survey a river in the mountains quite a distance from the town to gather data for the reconstruction of a potable water tank. Because it was so difficult to hike up the mountain, we had to leave our heavy surveying equipment behind, relying instead on a rustic system of a measuring tape and a rod of rattan. The river was so deep that Adrian and Tom had to swim across its 100-foot width in order to measure the depth and cross section. This definitely challenged us to think creatively as both surveyors and engineers.

The people of Portobelo were just as memorable for me as the land on which they lived. What was at first a cold reception turned warm when the community learned about our project. They were curious about us and what we were doing in their neighborhood.

The children made the biggest impression on me, tagging along behind us as we moved from one occupied point to another. We tried to encourage their interest in surveying with simple explanations of the technical details, and took turns lifting them up to look through the total station at objects we had focused on. They asked questions and jumped at every chance to help--even if it was just to hold the rod for a few seconds. At one point, we needed to take a point on top of a pipe along a river, a site inaccessible to an adult. One of the children offered to help. Having carefully observed how we leveled the rod countless times before, he climbed over the bridge and centered the bubble of the rod with success. The presence of children like this made our work much more fun, and I was glad to be able to give something back to the community beyond hopes for a wastewater treatment plant.

This human touch of the surveying job made a big impact on both the wastewater project’s community involvement and our group. What we thought was mere technical work became a medium for us to connect with the locals, by giving us the chance to introduce them to something new and to accept their help. For our part, the town that was once a chaotic jumble in our eyes became unique and colorful, full of culture and beautiful sights. Being able to watch the sunset on the Caribbean from atop Fort San Jerónimo made the week’s hard work worth it.

Most of the buildings in Portobelo have red tile roofs, reminiscent of the area’s Spanish colonial roots. The town is bound by the Bay of Portobelo on one side and low, thickly grown mountains on the other. Photo courtesy of Thomas Kunetz.

Appreciation of Surveying

Overall, our adventures in both Santo Domingo and Portobelo gave us a thorough respect for surveyors and their ability to cope with challenges, ranging from equipment failure to rough terrain. The experience also taught us that surveying is much more than the technical details of setting up the total station and ensuring that we were collecting the correct data: we strengthened our abilities in communication, teamwork, problem solving and stamina, important skills for any field of engineering or science. As ESW continues work on its Panamanian projects, we know the experience we gained will advance our personal development as much as the projects advanced from the input of the simple data we collected.

A beautiful sunset over the Bay of Portobelo. The area was explored by Columbus and was once the site of pirate battles. Photo courtesy of Salihah Noh.

About ESW-NU

The Northwestern University chapter of ESW, located in Evanston, Ill., was founded in May 2003 and now has about 30 active members. The Panama projects discussed in the article are its first full-scale international projects. Members also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica in the spring/summer of 2004. The chapter does local projects such as a sustainable shuttle stop to demonstrate green building techniques and put on awareness events in the Chicago area. Most of its technical work is carried out through design courses in the School of Engineering. For more information, visit