In 1997, Bernard Amadei decided that his Boulder home’s landscaping needed a touch-up. So the University of Colorado Boulder civil engineering professor did what anyone in his situation would do: He called a local landscaping company. The men who came to his house happened to be from Belize, and shared stories of their home country with Amadei as they worked. Once they finished the job, they left, and Amadei never expected to hear from them again.

But he did. Two years later, he received an email from one of the men, who was now a representative from the Department of Agriculture in Belize. He invited Amadei to visit the Central American country. Then the professor did what most people in his situation would not do: He took sabbatical and went to Belize.

Amadei toured several villages, but says the most memorable of his trip was San Pablo. There, he saw a girl lugging water from the river. A child of her age should be devoting her time to school rather than this laborious chore, he thought; but alas, the town of 926 had no water pump.

Amadei returned to CU-Boulder and recounted the scene to his students—who then raised tens of thousands of dollars to build the people of San Pablo an irrigation system. His pupils’ response inspired Amadei to create Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB), a nonprofit that would enable engineers to use their skills to make a difference in developing countries. “What the students forced me to realize—and I’m forever grateful to them—was that engineering is more than just technical stuff,” Amadei says. “It’s about creating a more peaceful world, a more equitable world. It’s about giving people a chance to live with dignity.”

Fifteen years later, Amadei’s brainchild has grown from one chapter with about 10 students to more than 16,000 active members across the country, with 400 water, energy, and infrastructure projects in 46 countries. The efforts have improved the lives of two and a half million people total. Tonight, CU-Boulder will celebrate that global impact with a talk by John Holdren, the science advisor to former President Barack Obama, followed by an anniversary reception at the University Memorial Center featuring a silent auction, hors d’oeuvre, drinks, and live music.

Given the number of public service programs available for everyone from teachers to doctors today, it’s difficult to grasp how innovative EWB was at the time. Amadei says many of his colleagues and the engineering profession at large generally saw their occupation as a way to control the world, not help it. “The current dean of engineering [Bobby Braun] is really excited about EWB, but at the beginning, they looked at me and said, ‘Why are you wasting your time?’” Amadei says. “There’s this idea that engineering is about math and physics and being nerdy, all that bullshit macho nonsense. That’s how I was educated—that we don’t think about the environment, we don’t think about people, it’s all a hard science—which is sad.”

The service-oriented aspect of EWB has certainly attracted women as well as men; about half of the organization’s members identify as female. (According to a Congressional Joint Economic Committee report, women make up 14 percent of engineers in the United States, but those stats are five years old.) “The community approach and the big focus on social impact has appeal to both genders,” says Nikki van den Heever, the current president of CU-Boulder’s EWB chapter, who says the organization’s strong presence on campus was one of the reasons she decided to attend the university. “It’s able to give students an experience that not many other programs offer in a tangible, meaningful way.”

EWB at CU-Boulder offers four different programs, in Rwanda, Peru, Paraguay, and Nepal; in Rwanda, for example, the students have built four rainwater collection systems—so rainwater can be stored and reused for other purposes—and plan to build 12 more over the next several years. (Each partnership lasts five years minimum.) Professional chapters exist, but fully trained engineers also play a large part in the university chapters, by both reviewing the projects and mentoring the students to ensure they have the capacity and support to complete the ambitious tasks. “When we’re looking at doing engineering projects, we want to make sure they are done right, but we also want to make sure they are the right projects for the community,” says Amadei, who’s no longer involved with the management of EWB but serves as an advisor to the CU-Boulder chapter. “And the third component is are we doing the projects for the right reason. That’s what differentiates the kind of engineering we do compared to traditional engineering.”

That’s not the only difference, though. EWB also introduces students to other cultures—and, more important, helps them realize their own biases. “There’s a lot of factors that you wouldn’t have to deal with if you were to do engineering along I-25 or I-70,” Amadei says. “I remember a project in Mali where people did not want to wash their hands even though there was water because they felt their spirit would go away. How do you get people to wash their hands when they think that way?”

One answer is to better understand where folks of different backgrounds are coming from and try to problem solve together. To that end, Amadei also cofounded Engineers Without Borders International (EWB-I), a network that brings together 65 EWB groups around the world to build up what he has dubbed a peace-industrial complex. “It’s a heck of a vision, I know, where people make more money in developing technology for peace than for war,” he says. “It may take 100 years for peace to compete against war, but it’s worth starting the process ASAP. If you look at how many young people have a different view of the world—they want the world to be a better place yesterday, not today or tomorrow—it’s a unique time in history where we can essentially leverage that excitement.”

Amadei’s not particularly thrilled with the progress EWB-I has made so far. But then again, the first EWB project he attempted, back in Belize, didn’t get off the ground immediately either. The first pump the students installed was washed away by a massive flood. The second was too expensive for the community to maintain. The third—an innovative solar-powered pump that used the energy of the sun, not the villagers, to pull water up from the well—was the winner. All they needed was some inventive thinking.

John Holdren’s free talk will start at 5 p.m., November 16, in the Glen Miller Ballroom in CU-Boulder’s University Memorial Center. Tickets for the anniversary reception are $25.