It can be hard to study in a classroom once the sun sets in Kianjavato, Madagascar, a village with a population of 5,000.

The town has faced issues with electric lighting in local schools for as long as its citizens can remember, and the schools suffered — until the Engineers Without Borders student chapter at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln arrived.

EWB is an international nonprofit organization that connects engineers with communities to help them meet basic needs. The UNL chapter has worked on projects focusing on things like water supplies and solar panel installation in Madagascar, Uganda and Zambia, according to its official website.

Libby Jones and Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, both civil engineering professors who work at the University of Nebraska Omaha and UNL’s campuses, co-founded EWB-NU in 2008 and serve as the club’s faculty advisers. Jones said she discovered EWB through the American Society of Civil Engineers and liked the organization’s mission.

“I saw what other universities were doing with EWB and thought we should do that as well,” she said in an email. “The projects I saw them doing looked like a great way to bring another dimension to engineering, as well as getting engineering majors from all majors working together on different types of small projects.”

The club recruits members at the beginning of each semester through advertisements and inviting freshmen engineering majors to attend their meetings. They’re required to go to these meetings through the ENGR 10 seminar, according to Capri Keeler, its president and senior civil engineering major.

EWB-NU has focused on Madagascar and Zambia since the club’s inception, Keeler said. The group travels to the countries during the summer to work on the projects that they plan during the school year.

The club partners with the Madagascar Biodiversity Project: a non-governmental organization connected to the Henry Doorly Zoo’s conservation work.

According to the World Bank, Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest nations, with about 75 percent of its population living on less than $1.90 per day and only 13 percent having access to electricity.

The club started a solar panel installation project in Kianjavato in 2010 to provide lights to classrooms through solar power. Keeler said it’s hard for students to see in classrooms and use them as study places once the sun sets and the buildings become dark.

Keeler, who has been a part of the club since her freshman year, said the panels power classrooms with a box that holds solar-powered batteries and outlets that teachers can plug technology into.

“It’s good for them so they can study and learn after-hours and also hold meetings,” she said.

In a country that the World Bank reports as having the fifth-highest number of out-of-school children, it’s important for students to be able to learn after normal school hours. Jones said all fifth graders in Madagascar also have to pass a national exam to advance to middle school.

“If they don’t pass, that’s the end of their schooling,” she said. “Because of this, a lot of them study at night.”

Jones said before EWB-NU installed the lights in classrooms, kids studied at home by candlelight or small kerosene lamps.

“With the lights in the classrooms, the teachers open the classrooms at night for the kids to study,” she said.

Schools in Kianjavato have reported that the passage rates for exams rose following the installation of solar panels, according to Jones.

She said EWB-NU will return to Madagascar in May 2019 to install lights at another school, check on the other installations and plan for another two or three schools. The group has installed lights at six schools since the project began in 2010.

The group’s work in Madagascar is far from over, but they’re not limiting themselves to only that region.

EWB-NU started a project in Zambia in January 2018 to build a 426-foot pedestrian bridge over the Kalomo River, which separates the Sindowe and Simulunda communities, according to Keeler.

The club partners with The SAM Project, a Canadian organization working to improve the lives of rural Zambians.

During the country’s rainy season from November to April, the Kalomo River floods, making the path between the two communities impassable, according to Bartelt-Hunt.

She said individuals living on the far side of the river are cut off from access to medical care and other services during this time of the year.

Although the situation creates problems for everyone in the communities, Keeler said it presents issues for pregnant women in particular.

“If you’re going to give birth during this season and don’t want to give birth at home, you have to cross the river before the water levels are too high,” she said.

Keeler said women often live with nurses in women’s shelters on the other side of the river until they give birth, and cross over the bridge after receiving medical care. She said the project is a work in progress and little change has been made since last year, but the Zambians are still hopeful.

“They had a big celebration the first day we arrived, and we hadn’t done anything yet,” she said. “They were just so excited that we were there.”

It takes EWB-NU a few years to officially start a project, Keeler said.

“We go out into the communities and figure out what the people we visit want,” she said. “We want them to help us and partner with us so they can have ownership and take care of the changes we’ve made once we’ve left.”

EWB-NU has received multiple awards for their work in Madagascar, including the 2014 EWB-USA Midwest Premier Chapter Award and the UNL Student Organization Award for Philanthropy and Service, which Jones said is humbling.

“It’s thrilling to see our students be recognized for all the wonderful work they do,” she said.

Keeler said EWB-NU is important to her and one of her favorite things about UNL.

“EWB has become one of the most valued things over my four years,” she said. “I would love to do something like it in the future.”


This article was originally published in the March 2019 edition of The DN.