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Putting Engineering to Work for a Small African Community

Ryan Howell

Senior civil engineering student Ryan Howell already knows what it’s like to venture into the world at large and solve real-world engineering problems. In January of 2014, Ryan put his engineering education to work in a big way as part of a seven-student team that traveled to Africa and created clean water, free from heavy metal contamination, for a rural community of several thousand people. Ryan and the other students all belong to the UMass Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which sent them to Namawanga, Kenya, with their faculty advisor John Tobiason of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department and CEE graduate student mentor Joseph Gikonyo, a native of Kenya.

EWB-USA, the international program that spawned the UMass chapter, supports community-driven development programs worldwide by collaborating with local partners to design and implement sustainable engineering projects, while creating transformative experiences and responsible leaders. EWB’s 14,700 members work with communities to find appropriate solutions for water supply, sanitation, energy, agriculture, civil works, structures, and information systems. From the initial blueprint to the boots-on-the-ground work, EWB-USA members have impacted more than 2.5 million lives.

“What attracted me to it was just the idea that it was a student-run program that involves volunteer work in a foreign country helping a community with poor water quality get better water quality,” explains Ryan. “Beyond that, I was interested in applying my engineering education to hands-on experience in the field. I wouldn’t have an internship until the following summer, 2014, so I was really hungry to practice what I was learning in class.”

Ryan’s introduction to the UMass Amherst EWB chapter was much less auspicious than the momentous humanitarian work he ended up doing.

“Mostly I got involved because I was walking through the campus center and I saw my friend sitting behind a recruiting table for Engineers Without Borders,” Ryan recalls. “I had no idea what it was. So I went over and started talking to her, and she explained the details and the involvement, and I thought it sounded great. So I sat down at the table with her and started explaining it to other people.”

Once engaged in chapter activities, Ryan was chosen to go to Kenya due to his previous construction experience. Because he had worked on concrete in the past, he was included on the Kenya team to help mix and pour a big concrete foundation for an iron-removal system at a well installed by the EWB UMass Amherst chapter several years ago at the Machakha Youth Polytechnic School, located within the community.

In recent years, residents reported that the water from the well tasted metallic and was thought to be unusable for practical daily tasks, such as drinking, washing clothes, and cooking. The poor water quality has caused underutilization of the water. Water testing analysis done during a previous trip in January of 2013 enabled EWB to identify the most feasible method of iron removal, a process involving chlorination, precipitation, and settling. Students then brainstormed ideas, analyzed alternatives, designed a final system, and collaborated to include all the information in comprehensive technical reports.        

As Ryan remarks, “When we went into the country, I was in charge of making sure we bought all the right material for the concrete foundation, insuring the quality of that material, and then getting it to the construction site. We bought the material in country, near the school, in a little hardware store owned by somebody who has cooperated with our Kenya Project for years.”

Then, of course, there was the dirty work of installing the concrete slab. “We bought wooden forms and nailed them together and placed them in our designated area around the hand pump, and then we started doing the actual hands-on construction work, including hand mixing in wheelbarrows, and pouring the concrete. It took all day, 8 to 5.”

This new system precipitates iron and separates it from the water. The iron-removal system utilizes chlorine to catalyze the oxidation and precipitation of the dissolved iron. Tanks store the treated water and provide time for the iron particles to settle to the bottom. In addition to creating the reinforced concrete foundation, the EWB team adapted the hand pump and installed two 1,500-liter tanks, configured the associated piping and valves, laid a brick sand-drying bed, and constructed a wire fence around the system.

Later, after the whole system was installed, team members also trained the school’s security guard and cook to treat water every night and maintain the new system. In addition, the travel team monitored the conditions of past projects, which include several spring boxes and a rainwater catchment system at the Miendo Maternity Ward.  

Not surprisingly, Ryan suffered from a bout of culture shock after he landed in Nairobi. “I was amazed about Nairobi, where we landed, with car traffic flying by everywhere and all the congestion. I didn’t expect it to be that way at all. I was shocked at how busy it was.”

Then there was an eight-hour drive through well-cultivated farm land to where the team was working. “I was amazed again by how green the countryside was,” recalls Ryan. “There were great mountain views, and everyone was so friendly. We were obviously a group from a different country, so people would just come right up to us asking us where we were from and what we were doing. It was pretty cool.”

Considering the priceless experience Ryan has already picked up in Kenya, he was chosen as the Program Manager for the Kenya project that will send seven more students to Kenya in January of 2015. In preparation for this trip, the chapter is designing a new rainwater catchment system for the Namawanga Primary School, which currently enrolls roughly 400 students, and anticipates a rise of up to 800 students in the near future. However, they have no clean drinking water on site.

As Ryan says, “My satisfaction comes from knowing that I’ve worked in a Third World country and helped a small community with lack of clean drinking water, and I feel good helping other people. Also, it’s just great to have the experience of applying my last 15 years of schooling to a real-world engineering solution.” (September 2014)