University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Summer 2011
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In 2011, Engineers Without Borders’ University of Nebraska student chapter made its second trip to Madagascar, with six UNL students using engineering skills to improve living conditions in Kianjavato.

EWB-NU formed in 2009 and sent four students in May 2010 to the remote community where Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo has a field station, near a threatened ecosystem that’s home to critically endangered lemurs.

Libby Jones, professor of civil engineering and faculty adviser for the organization, said EWB-NU works to “help the Malagasy people improve their water supply and basic infrastructure.”

Jones said EWB-NU’s initial visit in 2010 built relationships, affirmed goals for needed water and energy projects, and established baseline metrics in those areas. This year, she led a four-person bio sand filter team and a three-person solar team for several weeks in May (during Madagascar’s autumn, with dry weather and temperatures around 85 degrees F). While there, EWB-NU also continued its community health assessment: part of the holistic, long-term way EWB-USA guides its chapters’ project work.

The solar team’s objective on this trip was to collect detailed site information to design solar power systems for Kianjavato school classrooms, said Jones, with the end goal to provide better light and air circulation for improved learning environments.

The students focused on determining “how much light is in each classroom and what the temperatures are.” Jones said the team installed 19 matchbook-size sensors in 9 of the area’s primary schools and one secondary school. The sensors take hourly readings; a local worker was hired to help record and transmit the data for EWB-NU students to analyze.  

The solar team also documented school building dimensions, roof materials and structure for mounting solar panels to power interior lights or fans. In addition, the EWB-NU solar team set up weather monitoring at the Omaha Zoo’s field station in Kianjavato, to help gauge the level of solar energy, temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind speed and direction (already confirming the EWB-NU assessment that solar would be the more efficient energy source, Jones added, since winds are relatively weak there most of the year).

The biosand filter team worked on bringing sustainable filtration devices to community locations, starting with one school as a demonstration site.


Jones said the bio sand filter technology is basic, used on a larger scale at many water treatment plants. Bushproof, a Malagasy company of former Peace Corps volunteers concerned with water quality, molds the concrete filter bodies about three feet tall and one foot square. Local sand and gravel are added and, in three-day workshops, 14 villagers learned the filtration process involving daily input of water to help set the biolayer. With that daily use, after a month the water coming through the device would be safe to drink; the school’s follow-up testing showed success, and the school will continue to monitor the water quality from the demo filter.

EWB-NU plans a return to Madagascar in spring 2012, to install solar power at one school as a demonstration unit, an initial step in the larger project. Jones said EWB-NU estimates the cost to equip each classroom with solar-powered lights and ceiling fans at approximately $2,500. Budget is always a challenge. “Project costs are more readily funded, but each trip costs $3,000 per person for airfare with the total per person travel cost $4,000,” Jones said.” Back in Nebraska, fundraising is an ongoing EWB-NU priority.

The students are rising to the occasion to garner support and technical expertise, Jones said. “None of the solar team had background in that work, but the students have pursued independent learning and sought out resources including relevant engineering faculty,” she noted. “On the water team, Stacey Joy had never prepared a lesson plan, but she worked with our zoo colleagues on-site to develop localized training for the biosand filter workshops.”

Kianjavato’s exotic, remote setting—a nine-hour drive from the nation’s capital—adds complexity and pleasant distractions, but Jones said the attitude and commitment of the students are proving resilient. Following EWB-USA practices, the NU student chapter developed in-depth proposals for the water and energy projects, and—true to the discipline of engineering—they have revised them several times.

“The purpose of this (May 2011) trip was to test our assumptions about what is needed, and see if our plan makes sense or not,” Jones said. The data collected gives EWB-NU “a good idea of the existing conditions, so we can do our final design and implement it, then take performance measurements and see the difference.”

To help support EWB-NU, contact Libby Jones, or Karen Moellering,



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