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Nebraska’s Engineers Without Borders group departs to serve in Madagascar

A multi-year dream is coming true for the University of Nebraska chapter of Engineers Without Borders, as a team departs May 11 for a remote village in Madagascar to work on projects that improve lives as well as the habitat for endangered species.

Working with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo representatives, EWB-NU focused on Kianjavato, with 300 residents in the south central region of this island off the east coast of Africa. The zoo operates a research station nearby where extremely endangered Greater Bamboo Lemurs live, and where Madagascar’s rich bio-diversity has been threatened by hunting and deforestation.

The EWB-NU group intended to begin work in Madagascar last spring, but political unrest in the nation’s capital postponed their 2009 trip.

The primary goal of the five EWB-NU travelers on this year’s trip is to conduct a site assessment and find out what the people there need—from potable water to reliable power—and then work collaboratively to implement sustainable advances in return visits ahead, said Sam Saunders, studying for his Ph.D. in civil engineering with UNL.

Fellow traveler and faculty adviser Libby Jones, UNL professor of civil engineering, said the Henry Doorly Zoo staff has been wonderful to work with, and cited the mutual benefit of their partnership: “Our assistance with their presence in Kianjavato shows the Malagasy people that when they are doing things to help take care of their local environment, the community gains many benefits and can continue to value these resources.”

On this trip Rahman Strum, a student with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s School of Public Health, will conduct surveys on health needs with Kianjavato’s people. UNL juniors Megan Hansen, a biology major, and Kaitlin Ek, who studies English and hopes to be a travel writer, will aid these efforts.

“A student in any major would be welcome to join us,” said civil engineering senior Claire Zhao, EWB-NU’s chapter president in Omaha. Zhao was not traveling to Madagascar but has devoted five to 10 hours each week this year on the group’s preparation.

Jones added: “Engineers in practice must work with people outside of engineering, and being able to work in a multi-disciplinary way is a great skill for engineers.”

The 2010 EWB-NU travelers plan to return to Nebraska May 27 and share their experiences, then begin coordinating and fundraising for further work to be done on their return trips in coming years. For more information about the EWB-NU program, visit its Web site at ewb.unl.edu. Learn more about the Madagascar connection with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo at omahazoo.com.