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Engineers recognized for Rwanda aid

Peter J. Bosscher

Peter J. Bosscher (large image)

A University of Wisconsin-Madison group of engineering students that is helping to build basic infrastructure systems in the poor, war-torn African country of Rwanda garnered international recognition for its efforts May 30 in Berlin.

The UW-Madison Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter received the Mondialogo Engineering Award, a DaimlerChrysler and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) initiative aimed at recognizing engineering achievements aimed at meeting United Nations millennium development goals and fostering intercultural dialog.

The Rwanda project group, which also includes students from the University of Colorado-Boulder and numerous institutions in Rwanda, was among 21 project teams from 28 countries to receive the award. More than 1,700 engineering students from 79 nations registered for the competition, forming 412 international teams.

Rwanda has little functional infrastructure and basic systems that carry clean water or sewage are lacking in many parts of the country. Because of Rwanda's mountainous terrain, building centralized water systems is difficult, so drinking water has to be found and delivered locally. Villagers often must walk several miles if their local water system breaks down — and often that water is untreated. For the past two years, students in the UW-Madison EWB chapter worked on improving a gravity-fed system that supplies water for the community of Muramba in an area that includes about 9,000 villagers and 3,000 schoolchildren. The group also is working on reducing Rwandan deforestation by teaching villagers solar cooking and water pasteurization methods.

Geological engineering undergraduate Evan Parks was one of two EWB team leaders in Rwanda. He says the EWB students thought they would be doing lots of the "high-tech" engineering they'd learned in school. Rather, the experience taught them to apply more basic skills. "The Murambans all knew what needed to be done and they already have important skills," he says. "They just needed a little bit of money and they needed a little bit of motivation and that's what we provided. We also helped them with some of the engineering and gave them some suggestions — not as project leaders or managers, but as advisors."

Evan Parks (upper right) and Rwandan children

EWB participants Evan Parks (upper right) meets with Rwandan children last summer. (large image)

Working with the residents to develop sustainable systems — those villagers will be able to use and maintain for years to come — that meet their needs gave the EWB students a new perspective on how they approach engineering. "I think you really need to be able to listen to people and understand their problems because you're not going to know the solutions before you visit," says Parks. "I think just sitting on the hillside just talking with people gets you a lot farther."

For Parks, who grew up in Slinger, Wisconsin, working in Rwanda was a life-changing experience. The country's citizens, he says, have overcome enormous obstacles, including poverty and personal tragedy, to get to where they are today. "If things aren't going well, I just think, 'That person in that place has faced so many more difficulties than me and look at how their attitude is, and how they wake up each day and try to improve their lives and the lives of their companions,' " says Parks. "That's very inspiring to me and it makes me want to continue in this capacity as an engineer."

UW-Madison's EWB chapter formed three years ago to develop internationally responsible engineering students via partnerships with disadvantaged communities. Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Peter Bosscher is its advisor. "This award demonstrates that the international community appreciates the good sustainable efforts of our work in Rwanda," he says. "Perhaps the recognition will make our efforts at fund-raising more productive. The award, which includes a monetary prize of about $7,000, will defray a portion of the cost of our continued efforts in Rwanda in July 2005."

Water resources in Rwanda

When two teams of students arrive in Muramba this summer, those efforts will include adding water sources to community, improving the quantity of water, and improving the quality of water through solar pasteurization. The group will demonstrate solar food cookers (a simple box lined with aluminum foil and covered with glass — a system that takes advantage of the area's high altitude and intense sunlight) and show residents how to make fuel out of discarded organic materials like paper and garden waste. "You can compost it, dry it out, and then using a fuel press, you can make fuel pellets out of it that people can use for cooking, because Rwanda is almost completely deforested," says Parks.

Water resources in Rwanda

Clean water for drinking and cooking is a scarce resource in Rwanda, as many parts of the country lack proper water systems. (large image)

The students also will help open markets for Rwandan products such as handcrafts, baskets and artwork. "I think we're taking steps to work with them to help them meet their own needs — not our needs," says Parks.

Other UW-Madison EWB students include Andrea Khosropour (Madison, Wis.), Timothy Miller (Milton, Wis.), Audrey Miller (Champaign, Ill.), Andrew Lockman (Traverse City, Mich.), Perry Cabot (Fort Collins, Col.), Amelia Cosgrove (New Glarus, Wis.), Matthew Bretl (Madison, Wis.), Andrew Griggel (Sheboygan, Wis.), Adrienne Kuehl (Oconomowoc, Wis.), Andrew Derocher (Madison, Wis.), William Brower (Brookfield, Wis.), Jon Armah (North Las Vegas, Nev.), Megan Bender (Prairie du Chien, Wis.), Ryan Wilson (Mendota Heights, Minn.), Ryu Suzuki (Madison, Wis.), Sam Jorgensen (Madison, Wis.), Skye McAllister (West St. Paul, Minn.), Paul Fraser (Glendale, Wis.), Philip Gaebler (Madison, Wis.) and Maxwell Goggin Kehm (Wautoma, Wis.).