This article was originally published in the June edition of Create, Engineers Australia’s Member magazine. Republished here with permission. Written By Matilda Bowra.

Twenty engineering students recently spent two weeks building infrastructure in a remote village in Rwanda. The project was a pilot for an innovative education initiative designed to foster practical skills and enhance employability.

In November 2015 David Walker had a light bulb moment. The University of Wollongong engineering lecturer was waiting to board a plane to Rwanda when he says, “It dawned on me we could create an autonomous, self-directed learning subject where students have to use their skills in a real-life project.” Wollongong University gave the go ahead and Walker designed the half-year Engineering in Developing Nations elective which was piloted in the first half of 2016.

Walker says the aim of the program is to produce the best engineering graduates in Australia by giving students a world view and fostering soft skills such as emotional intelligence, teamwork, flexibility and adaptability.

The Rwandan connection

The idea to base the project in Rwanda came from a personal connection between Walker and a Rwandan community leader. Walker has a long history of volunteering on water supply projects in Rwanda through an Australian charity called HOPE Global that is working to address the devastating impacts of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.

“I built up a relationship with a lady called Elsie Hitimana who lost her whole family in the genocide,” explains Walker.

“The projects I worked on were for orphan and widows’ villages, but in 2014, she took me to a village where she had grown up, two hours east of Kigali. Every child in that community was either the child or grandchild of a killer. Elsie had set up a pre-school for these children and wanted to establish a reliable water supply and build a kitchen and dining hall. She gave me a problem and I got the students to design and execute a solution.”

Put theory into practice

Walker says the first intake of 20 students, drawn from a variety of engineering disciplines, was carefully vetted to ensure they could cope with being exposed to a community that suffered genocide and be good ambassadors for the university.

The project involved understanding the needs of the community and working with a limited budget, no power and very little infrastructure.

The students were divided into two groups of 10. The first group was tasked with designing and building the water infrastructure while the second group was responsible for the kitchen and dining hall. The project involved understanding the needs of the community and working with a limited budget, no power and very little infrastructure except an existing church.

Between February 2016 and June 2016, the students had to raise money to pay for the project, research and design solutions, liaise with Hitimana and present their designs to a panel of industry professionals and academics.

Unforeseen challenges

The first team responsible for water infrastructure was led by fourth year mining engineering student Tim Crawley.

Despite the months of rigorous planning and preparation, Crawley’s team was confronted with unforeseen challenges when they arrived in Rwanda in June 2016 with a two-week deadline to turn their designs into reality.

One of the biggest challenges was scope change. During the research phase, the water team concluded that purchasing two 10,000 L tanks which would easily fill with water during the wet season would be the most practical, affordable solution and provide 90 per cent water security for the rest of the year.

They planned to install the tanks downhill from an existing concrete slab which the second team had earmarked to use for the kitchen and dining hall to save money. Crawley’s team spent a valuable day finding a second-hand diesel pump in Kigali to pump water from the tanks uphill to the kitchen.

However, when they arrived on site, Hitimana told them the kitchen and dining area could not be built on the existing slab as the children would be eating too close to the road.

The conversation turned their carefully made plans and the plans for the second group upside down. Crawley says, “It wasn’t an option for us to come back and do it another time. We were forced to think laterally and spent half a day finding a solution.”

An alternative option, positioning the kitchen and dining hall at the back of the church on a very steep slope closer to the tanks had originally been rejected due to the huge amount of excavation required. The water team realised their job would be significantly easier if they found a way to evacuate the slope, locate the kitchen and dining hall closer to the tanks and use a gravity system instead of a pump.

To ensure the tank water would not be contaminated, the water team installed a first flush system where only one tank receives water from the roof. Fine mesh was used to cover entry points, the gutters and every exposed inlet or outlet throughout the system. The first tank receives the water. Sediment then settles in the first tank and is not transferred to the second tank with the outlet. “We were confident the system would ensure the water was completely clean and drinkable,” says student Tim Crawley.

Once the new location was agreed with Hitimana, a call for workers was put out and the next day, 35 Rwandans turned up armed with their own picks and shovels. Within a day and a half, the major earthworks were completed and the project was back on track.

“Before we could put the tanks in place, we needed to build a retaining wall and compact soil,” explains Crawley.

“This had to be done in layers. We’d throw the dirt in and some moisture, and every half an hour everyone would be called in and we’d jump around to compact the soil. We’d put a dance track on from a phone and do it to music and the Rwandans would start singing along. It was incredibly festive.”

For the retaining walls, the students used gabion cages – wire cages filled with rocks – commonly used in Australia to stabilise slopes and prevent erosion, especially in storm water drains.

“We realised we didn’t need any special equipment for retaining walls as we could build gabion cages using rocks on site and wire from a village store,” says Crawley.

All the work was completed with basic tools. They took over tape measures, plyers, wire snips and saws, purchased shovel heads in the local village and built their own handles and ladders on site using tree branches.

“When we connected the tanks, the whole community was there to see the unveiling. We sat in front of them and they sung to us. It was an incredible feeling,” says Crawley.

Working relationships

Crawley says, “I now have a huge appreciation for team managers and understand how integral it is that the team has a good working relationship.”

“Those of us in fourth year were doing a subject in project management while we were developing the designs,” he adds.

I now have a huge appreciation for team managers and understand how integral it is that the team has a good working relationship.

“It was hugely relevant because we had a subject we were learning and the practical application alongside it.”

Alexandra Harden, an environmental engineering student in Crawley’s group says, “It was not just a physical solution, it was about working with the community to get something they wanted. It’s easy to find a technical solution, but we realised there are so many other social and environmental factors that need to be considered, such as communication.

David Walker joined the University of Wollongong Engineering Faculty two years ago with a brief to prepare graduates for industry. He hopes the Engineering in Developing Nations pilot will influence engineering education in two ways. Firstly, through practical learning by allowing students to expand unrestrained in their thinking about how they execute something, and secondly, by fostering emotional intelligence.

“If you are just competent as an engineer and lack social skills, no one will listen to you and you will alienate people. If you are competent as an engineer and competent socially, you will be the best engineer in the world,” he says.

The subject will now run biennially, but Walker hopes it will evolve into a humanitarian major.

This article was originally published in the June edition of Create, Engineers Australia’s Member magazine. Republished here with permission. Written By Matilda Bowra.