Nicole Froelich was just starting her first year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering in fall 2017, but she had heard about Interdisciplinary Engineering 170 from a few older friends.
So she knew the introductory design course—open to first-year students from a range of majors across the college—would expose her and her classmates to working with a client on a tangible project. But she couldn’t have possibly guessed that project would lead her more than 8,000 miles from campus the following spring.
“We thought we were just doing a class project,” says the biomedical engineering major from Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Yet Froelich and four groupmates found themselves in Kenya in late May 2018, hand delivering the product they had designed in their first-year design practicum: a double-sided vest that will allow women in rural locales to carry water and other goods long distances in a less physically taxing way.
Lesley Sager, a faculty associate who teaches interior design in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, brought the project and a handful of other challenges to civil and environmental engineering lecturer Katie Kalscheur’s two sections of Interdisciplinary Engineering 170.
Sager has traveled to Kenya with students at least once a year since 2012 and teaches a design thinking course that addresses on-the-ground problems in the East African country. While meeting with women in Tharaka Nithi County, she and her students learned that transporting water was taking up to eight hours a day. And the method the women were using—carrying a 20-liter plastic jerrycan on their backs, with a rope they grip with their hands and wrap around their foreheads—was causing headaches and neck and spine problems.
“They weren’t really complaining about it. That was just part of what they do during their day,” recalls Sager. “Sometimes it just takes an outsider’s point of view to see things differently and new opportunities.”
The engineering student team played around with a few ideas, including rollable barrels and a travois system the women could pull. But it was their vest design—drawing inspiration from Camelbak hydration packs used by hikers and other endurance athletes—that got Sager excited.
“I like the idea of just really simple solutions that don’t cost a lot of money and can be easily reproduced within the community,” says Sager.
Using a canvas sail donated by the Hoofer Sailing Club at UW-Madison, the students created a double-sided vest that matches the capacity of a standard jerrycan while allowing for hands-free, unhindered movement.
Sager took the final prototype with her on a trip to Kenya over the 2017-18 winter break. The reception was so positive that she encouraged the engineering group to apply for a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship and invited them to join her on a return trip after the spring 2018 semester.
The team was among nine 2018-19 Wisconsin Idea Fellowship recipients, and five students—Froelich, Jacob Cohn (a biomedical engineering major), Isabel Reams (civil and environmental engineering), Molly Snow (environmental engineering) and Henry West (industrial engineering)—opted for the trip. Less than two weeks after exams wrapped up, they were on a plane to Nairobi to start a 24-day trek.
After teaching girls to make the vests at both a high school and a nonprofit that rescues girls from child marriage, beading (a form of sex slavery) and female genital mutilation, they met the women who were the genesis of their project in a village in Tharaka Nithi County. Not only did the women giggle with excitement when they saw the vests, but within minutes, they had imagined uses for it beyond water, such as picking produce and transporting it to the market, holding materials for weaving baskets, and even carrying a child.
“Seeing the women all light up, it just hit me in that moment,” says Froelich. “It was so fulfilling.”
In addition to distributing seven adult vests and one child version, the students left behind their patterns. The plan is for the women to make them using woven-nylon rice bags in the future, ensuring the process is sustainable at the local level and giving them full control over the product.
“Making money is a necessary thing in this day and age,” says Cohn, a student from Prior Lake, Minnesota, “but improving other people’s lives that are less fortunate is something that isn’t valued enough.”
UW-Madison engineering students solve water-carrying challenge in Kenya