Purdue EEE Abroad: EEE master's students dig for treasured water in the Dominican Republic

Rylan Elliott, Thalia May, and Adam Spieth brought their Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering brains and work ethic to the central Dominican Republic last December. Why? To build a reliable water system for the school community of El Desecho.


Rylan Elliott, Thalia May, and Adam Spieth brought their Purdue Environmental and Ecological Engineering brains and work ethic to the central Dominican Republic, or DR, last December. Why? 

“We are looking to provide water access in sustainable and dependable ways for communities across the central DR using rainwater systems or underground well systems,” Thalia May, an EEE master’s student, says.

These students are a part of the “Water Supply for Developing Countries” class. This Purdue course, taught by Prof. Chip Blatchley (CE/EEE) and Prof. Becca Johnson (NUR), is an interdisciplinary service-learning class in which students design and implement systems to provide safe, affordable water to communities in developing countries.

Rylan, Thalia, and Adam, with the help of Purdue professors, planned to install an underground well system to enhance the current rainwater system and ensure reliable water availability for the school community of El Desecho. The effectiveness of systems largely depends on environment, location, resources, and community, so wells aren’t always viable. However, El Desecho passed the test.

Fencing is broken as the is prepared to begin the drilling process

Two workers install well casing during drilling process.


Rylan Elliott recalls:

“I can still remember the stress I felt on the second or third day of drilling the well. We had drilled to about 250 feet and saw little water. We weren’t sure how much farther past 300 feet we could afford to drill. Expenses, taxes, and international fees had added up to be more than we expected. It was my responsibility to tally up our expenses and compare them with what we had available from our donors. We were hitting a wall. We only had about 100 more feet that we could afford to drill.

“I felt uniquely invested and truly wanted this to work for the community. Looking at the faces of my team and the community members around me, I could tell everyone felt the same way.

“The next day we came back, and water had filled up the bottom of the well. Not enough to stop drilling, but enough to indicate we were reaching the ground water table. I vividly remember the stress melting away and the faces around me changing from concern to joy.”

After their help, and 340 feet of drilling, the community now has water for plumbing, washing, etc., but it’s not over yet for Rylan, Thalia, and Adam. The group will be returning in spring 2024 to install a purifying system, accomplishing their goal of providing reliable, maintainable, and potable water for El Desecho.

Water Supply class students pose with project partners in front of the school at Desecho.


“This trip and EEE have provided me with experiential learning that has brought professional and personal success. I believe that a roadblock to achieving both global sustainability and global equality is the lack of water access. This trip was a way to actively make a difference and live out my beliefs. I’m excited to return this spring,” Adam Spieth says.

All three students graduated from Purdue with bachelor’s degrees in EEE and are continuing in the combined degree program to receive master's degrees in one additional year.

EEE Students Thalia May, Rylan Elliott, and Adam Spieth enjoy the sunset after a day of drilling.


Considering a study abroad? Here’s what these students have to say:

“I have found that occasionally putting yourself out there or stepping into the unknown can be a great way to learn. Over time, getting used to trying new things and confronting uncomfortable situations can also help you become more comfortable and confident in yourself. This was the first time I travelled to do work like this, but I have wanted to for some time. I am so glad that I finally did.” - Rylan Elliott

“I recommend all engineering and EEE students pursue real-world experiences in their studies. There are many cultural differences that play an important part in the nuance of developing and implementing systems. Traveling and working directly with people is one of the best ways to fully understand these differences. Pursuing these kinds of experiences while at Purdue allows you the opportunity within a safe and structured organization.” - Thalia May

“There is no substitute for experiential learning. The best way to acquire new knowledge is to be physically present in an area outside your comfort zone, where you have no choice but to adapt. When you do this surrounded by others who share the same motivations as you and achieve something invaluable; you can’t imagine the reward. I feel great having accomplished something tangible that helps others who were in need.” - Adam Spieth

What made these students choose EEE in the first place?

“I chose EEE because I wanted a career where I could accomplish 3 goals: 1) Do work that is objectively good (benefits the world and society), 2) Do work that I enjoy and won’t grow bored of, 3) Be able to provide for myself and those I love. EEE is helping me achieve these goals.” ' Rylan Elliott

“It all started back in high school. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in engineering, but no engineering programs seemed to provide the solutions and impact I was interested in. I started doing research about how to connect my engineering passion with an interest for environmental and climate solutions. This led me to discovering Environmental and Ecological Engineering. Within my time in this department, I have been able to learn so many important skills, take part in multiple international experiences, and tackle real world issues that I feel are making the world a better place.” - Thalia May

“I chose EEE for many reasons. The coursework was intriguing and the flexible study plan allowed me to take interesting courses from other departments. Smaller class sizes allow for closer relationships with other students, enabling me to make life-long friends. I also firmly believe that the professors in EEE are the best that Purdue has to offer – they are passionate about what they do, they use that passion to fuel their teaching, and above all, they care about the students on a personal level.” - Adam Spieth