Engineers Help in Endana

Ever wonder what to do after college? Some elect to apply their skills in a stable job; others want to head off to school once more to obtain even higher degrees. But some wish to use the knowledge gained from their years at college specifically to help others that need it. That’s precisely what the students of UC Irvine’s Engineers Without Borders are doing now.

Courtesy of Engineers Without Borders

Courtesy of Engineers Without Borders

Engineers Without Borders is an appropriately named non-profit organization –– its members focus on using their skills to help underdeveloped communities outside the U.S. The organization has 450 chapters throughout the nation working with various countries, but UCI’s 20-25 member chapter –– which contains engineering majors (of all concentrations) and  public health majors –– has been focused on helping to improve the lives of those living in Endana, Kenya, since 2009.

Sept. 1-16 of this year marked the third trip to Kenya for Engineers Without Borders, who sent a small team of two mentors and two students, organization President Gurleen Bhatia and Project Lead Abby Cooke, to Kenya to survey their earlier latrine project and collect data for their new stove project, which they plan to implement in another trip next summer.

“I’ve always wanted to travel and also get a real world experience with engineering, since engineering classes tend to be boring,” Bhatia, a fifth year civil engineering major, said.  “This trip provided that hands-on experience I’ve always wanted.”

After three separate flights amounting to 22 hours, the EWB team made it to Endana, where they first checked in on the secondary school where, in 2011, they built latrines and a handwashing station to improve student sanitation. They found battered latrines and their handwashing station almost destroyed.

“We were happy to see they were being used, but they weren’t being maintained,” Bhatia says.

The complication is a result of time, not because of the students using the facilities. Before leaving, the 2011 team created a sanitation monitering committee comprised of students, and helped teach some of the teachers how to build more lantrines. Since then, the committee members have graduated from the school and the teachers have left. However, Bhatia and Cooke noted that some of the teachers built their own communal latrine shortly after they left in 2011, “which was pretty encouraging to see,” Cooke, a third year civil engineering major, said.

For the last half of the trip, the team traveled to three separate villages to speak with the women living in them and assess their everyday cooking methods. They reported that these women spend 18 hours a week gathering firewood and cook over simple fires, a method that is not only inefficient but depletes resources. EWB hopes to use this information to supply efficient cooking stoves for the women in the summer of 2014.

Though their homes are unventilated, and it takes the villagers an hour to walk to and from the mission — the only place where they can receive pure water — Bhatia and Cooke recall the people being some of the most content and happy people they’ve met.

“This is the only way they know how to live, but they didn’t feel sorry for themselves,” Cooke said. “I was amazed at how welcoming they were. I felt like I was at home when I was with them.”

EWB’s next step is to use their data to determine which kind of stove best fits the womens’ needs, as well as to search for materials produced locally and to help teach the women how to use their stoves efficiently. The organization plans to spend the academic year designing and searching for new ways to improve the lives of those living in Endana.

As for Bhatia and Cooke, the international experience reaffirmed their major of choice and played a role in Bhatia’s desire to continue working with EWB in a more professional setting after graduating from UCI. Cooke cites the traveling as an “eye-opening experience,” and “one that makes me realize that we have a responsibility to use our education to help others.”

Engineers Without Borders at UCI continues in its partnership with the villages in Endana, Kenya, and while it has many engineering majors, it also hopes to recruit students in the public health field for the next stove project.