Through Engineers Without Borders, environmental studies student finds opportunity to help others

March 15, 2012

Like many students, Ben Koch entered college focused on establishing an expertise, building his resume, and getting a good job with a decent salary after graduation. Part way through his college career, his goals transformed, inspired by a desire to find work he enjoyed with results he could believe in.

The change came when Koch, a UW-Madison senior majoring in both civil and environmental engineering and environmental studies, realized that through his introductory coursework he had developed the skills to do basic engineering tasks " skills he could use to serve communities in need.

But strict U.S. certification standards require engineers to have at least three years of experience. So Koch began to look for opportunities overseas.

Engineering student Ben Koch in Rwanda
Koch atop a water tank in Muramba, Rwanda,
midway through construction. Through his work
with Engineers Without Borders, Koch helped to
design the tank and traveled to Rwanda in August.

"I realized that the skills I had were perfect for the developing world," Koch says. "They are looking for solutions to problems that are simple in engineering terms."

Koch found an ideal fit with the UW-Madison branch of Engineers Without Borders and joined the student-run organization three years ago. Known on campus as EWB-UW, the group was founded in 2003 under the guidance of the late Peter Bosscher, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The organization partners with disadvantaged communities to design and implement environmentally and economically sustainable solutions to local problems. Their first community development project was launched in Muramba, Rwanda, and today is in its eighth year. The chapter has also expanded its work to Bayonnais, Haiti; Nejapa, El Slavador; and Orongo, Kenya, as well as projects in Wisconsin.

Koch currently serves as a Rwanda Project Manager for the organization and had the opportunity to travel to Muramba in August.

Home to roughly 300,000 people, Muramba is in one of the poorest regions of Rwanda and lacks basic infrastructure. Without even rudimentary water systems, access to clean drinking water is a major challenge.

In all of its efforts, Engineers Without Borders encourages community members to suggest project ideas. This not only involves the villagers and ensures the community is on board with projects, but it also guarantees the highest priority problems are addressed first.

For example, in Muramba, an unreliable pipeline was the only source of water for a local school, so the community asked EWB-UW to help them build water tanks to serve the school.

Students designed two tank options: one drawing from traditional Rwandan building techniques using brick masonry, and the other incorporating newer, more cost-effective methods, with a framework of iron rebar, mesh and cement.

Water tank being built in Muramba Rwanda
An in-country contractor (right, in blue) works with
a crew to place the final layer of mesh on the roof
of the water tank. Next, cement will be applied.

"We show them alternative ways that are cheaper and give them the skills to recreate it," says Koch. "But we let them decide which one they want to keep."

Generally, Koch says, the people of Muramba are excited to work with EWB-UW, though there are challenges.

A major difficulty lies in the language barrier. Most people in Muramba speak Kinyarwanda, so having to rely on translators opens the door to misinterpretation. Koch refers to a common phrase used by the Muramba villagers, "mzungu," meaning a rich white person.

"We sometimes see the attitude of 'if we can get mzungas to pay, we will,'" he says. "We make it clear that the projects will not be completed without [the community's] help and commitment."

Overall though, Koch recalls, from his time in Muramba, a strong enthusiasm within the community. He remembers excited children asking questions about projects and sharing their own aspirations of becoming engineers.

Engineers Without Borders is also coming up with ways to help the local children. They're developing an extracurricular entrepreneurship class that will expose students to various work opportunities, share lessons in how to start a business, and introduce them to local business owners.

"The city is going through a major redevelopment phase so there are a lot of opportunities," says Koch. "Everyone here wants to be an entrepreneur, but no one knows how."

The group's next major project is the design and construction of a new, expanded health center in Muramba, an effort that's been in development since 2009.

"The current clinic only has six beds in one room," Koch explains. "It is supposed to serve over 26,000 people."

The students' plan showcases an eight-room health center powered by solar panels. They hope to break ground in the summer of 2012.

Student Ben Koch with children in Rwanda
Koch (right) and UW-Madison engineering student
Evan Lewis (left), also a member of EWB-UW,
enjoy some time singing with children in Muramba.

Members of EWB-UW have met with local and national government officials to coordinate the project their goals and funding, and they are also collaborating with other, larger nonprofit organizations and members of the community.

"The local community can offer their commitment through non-monetary means," says Koch. "We expect them to contribute stone, gravel and manpower instead of cash."

The health center will remain at the forefront of the organization's focus in Rwanda, as 25 students and two professional engineering mentors work together to provide the people of Muramba with an improved facility.

Progress can be slow in the country, Koch says, but he and other EWB-UW members " who volunteer more than 1,400 hours each academic year on the Rwanda projects " are excited about their accomplishments thus far.

"As a group, we can't change the community," Koch says. "But we can put a few things in place that enhance their quality of life, so they can begin to help themselves."