Student news – UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders wins United Nations award

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Kyle Ankenbauer, Jean-Robert Saget and Kenold Decimus

Student Kyle Ankenbauer (left) with Haitian Ambassador to Europe Jean-Robert Saget and Haitian engineer Kenold Decimus at the United Nations Mondialogo Award ceremony in Germany.
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Two students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders have returned from Stuttgart, Germany, after accepting a prestigious engineering award from the United Nations for the chapter’s work in rural Haiti.

EWB-UW Haiti co-project manager Kyle Ankenbauer, a civil engineering student, and UW-Madison chapter president Eyleen Chou, a mechanical engineering student, made the trip to accept $22,400 and a gold medal Mondialogo Engineering Award, a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and Daimler initiative to recognize engineering achievements aimed at meeting United Nations millennium development goals and fostering intercultural dialogue. The award was presented at the Mondialogo Symposium, held Nov. 6-9.

This is the second time the EWB-UW group has won a Mondialogo award; in 2005, the Rwanda project won a bronze award and about $7,000.

“This is a huge honor, and it feels really good to have the project recognized at such a high level,” says Ankenbauer. “The award will help generate a lot of momentum behind this project since it’s been recognized by the UN.”

Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving underdeveloped countries and communities around the world. In addition to Haiti, the active UW-Madison chapter, which is advised by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Giri Venkataramanan and Civil and Environmental Engineering Adjunct Professor Norman Doll, has projects in Rwanda, Kenya, El Salvador and Red Cliff, Wisconsin. The Haiti project is unique because the UW-Madison chapter is collaborating extensively with other EWB chapters and NGOs. They share the Mondialogo award with Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Bayonnais native and engineer Kenold Decimus joined Ankenbauer and Chou in Germany.

For much of the year, the Saint-Cyr River in northern Haiti is a docile trickle 1 foot deep. However, when the late spring rains bear down on the Saint-Cyr, the river swells in some points to be more than 30 feet across and 10 feet deep. This volatility left a sinking feeling in the student members of the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders when they realized the extent of the flooding during their trip to Haiti in June 2009 to begin building a hydroelectric power generator: The site for the generator was in one of the areas most affected by flooding.

The students rallied to find a safer site, and they are currently working to construct a mini-hydroelectric power generator at the new site, which will provide 3 to 5 kilowatt hours of electricity to a school, library and church in Bayonnais, Haiti. The generator will also serve as a pilot project for a larger, 15 to 25 kilowatt generator the group may build for a community clinic currently in design.

The University of Colorado-Boulder launched the first chapter of EWB in 2000 and a bridge project in Haiti was one of its earliest initiatives. Graduate student Scott Hamel was with the project from the beginning in 2002, and when he came to UW-Madison to pursue a PhD in civil and environmental engineering, he encouraged the EWB-UW group to get involved.

The UW-Madison group did in 2006 and continued work on the bridge project in collaboration with the EWB San Francisco professional chapter (which currently is designing the clinic), a non-governmental organization in Haiti, and a church in North Carolina that now will support a salary for a local community member trained to maintain the hydroelectric generator. In addition to finishing and repairing the bridge after Hurricane Hannah, the EWB-UW group is currently repairing a 10-mile pipe that carries fresh water through Bayonnais and was recently damaged in a hurricane.

For Hamel, the connections he made with local people are why he continued to stay involved with the Haiti project. “It’s the poorest country in the western hemisphere,” he says. “I feel a sense of responsibility toward people who haven’t had the same opportunities I’ve had, and the people I’ve met in Haiti are my friends now.”

Ankenbauer says the people of Bayonnais want to help improve their community. “We’re simply bringing technology to people who are capable of supporting it and using it to better their community,” he says.