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Engineers Without Borders Uganda project team
February 6, 2023

EWB brings hands-on design experience with Ugandan project

Written By: Alex Holloway

After a long wait, the University of Wisconsin-Madison student chapter of Engineers Without Borders will soon work with community members on the other side of the world to begin construction on two schoolhouses in rural Uganda.

Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit organization that supports international projects to bring clean water, power infrastructure and schools to communities. UW-Madison’s EWB chapter has several teams devoted to projects in Guatemala, Ecuador, Uganda and Puerto Rico, and new members can decide which team they want to join.

The Uganda group has designed two schoolhouses for Bunangwe Buyobo, a rural community in eastern Uganda. Anna Janicek, a senior studying materials science and engineering and a project manager for the Uganda team, says the students are partnering with the Good Shepherd Community Development Association to see the project through. The project has been in the works since 2019, and after several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, construction was expected to finally begin in January 2023.

“Right now, the community has a school,” Janicek says. “It’s a wooden structure with a sheet metal roof. In the past, they’ve had problems with termites and the roof has blown off. So we want to help them build a more complete, secure structure that’s completely enclosed.”

Estimates for the schools came in at about $135,000—much higher than expected due to increased material costs. Though the team had to make some tough decisions and scale down on some of the project’s scope, Janicek says the students are committed to seeing both schoolhouses built.

“We don’t want to just build one schoolhouse and leave the community hanging for three years before we get enough money for the next one,” Janicek says.

In fact, for the fall 2022 semester, the team pivoted its primary focus to raising funds. Members applied for grants, held fund-raising events and contacted local companies for partnerships. Those efforts brought them to Virent, a Madison-based biofuels company with origins in the lab of James Dumesic, a chemical and biological engineering professor emeritus. Virent is supporting the EWB Uganda project with a $10,000 donation.

“Providing opportunities for future engineers to understand and apply their skills in a manner that will make a difference in the world can be rewarding for both the community and those students involved,” says Virent pilot plant engineer and Engineers Without Borders-Madison Area Professional Chapter co-president David Appleby. “We are very pleased at Virent to support the Uganda project and the UW engineering students that have worked hard to make it a reality.”

Janicek calls the donation a “huge help”—one that will push the schoolhouses project over the top so that construction can begin.

“There have been some frustrations along the way, knowing all the hard work the whole team has put into this project,” she says. “But it’s really rewarding to see the construction starting while I’m still here. I have been in contact with the community for so long, and it’s exciting to finally get them this project that they’ve been looking forward to for years.”

EWB is one of the largest student organizations at UW-Madison. It’s open to undergraduate and graduate students, and members don’t have to come from engineering or even have engineering-related experience.

Students who join EWB get hands-on experience through projects that affect people across the world. The organization’s multidisciplinary nature means its members can draw on each other’s knowledge to sharpen skills outside of their discipline. Janicek, for instance, says she’s learned more about civil engineering than she normally would as a materials science student.

“You do not need background in anything that we’re doing,” Janicek says. “We will teach you everything that you need to know. You don’t even need to be an engineer; you can write, you can do fund-raising. There are options for everyone. It’s a great leadership experience and a great way to get real-world engineering and design knowledge.”

The Ugandan project has been a lesson in patience, and in persisting through the unexpected obstacles that have come up along the way. It’s a lesson Janicek will leave UW-Madison with, and it’s one she’d share with the younger students who will follow in her footsteps.

“Be patient,” she says. “It’s better to have a good, solid design and to be sure everything is running smoothly than to rush and have a problem you can’t fix because the project is being built on the other side of the world.”

Featured image caption: Engineers Without Borders Uganda project team at UW-Madison has worked for years to see a project through to completion. The team has raised enough money to begin construction on two schoolhouses for a rural Ugandan community. Submitted photo.