College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineers Without Borders

For many years, Iowa State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders has worked with the community of Ullo, Ghana, in Africa, to help its people solve many issues. In this episode of Factor Analysis, Mechanical Engineering senior Clare Lanaghan tells us about the project they recently completed, as well as giving us a look at what’s ahead for the team.


Intro: Welcome to Factor Analysis, an in-depth conversation of engineering knowledge from the classroom to the field, and topical issues surrounding work and life from an engineer’s viewpoint.

Nick Fetty: Hello. I’m Nick Fetty with Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. I’m here today with Clare Lanaghan. She’s a senior in mechanical engineering and also a member of Iowa State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, or EWB as we’ll use for shorthand. Hi, Clare.

Clare Lanaghan: Hello.

NF: So, Clare, tell us where you’re from and what really sparked your interest in engineering and the STEM fields.

CL: I’m from Iowa City so I grew up in Iowa and liked it a lot. I got really interested in engineering in high school when I got to take some of the Project Lead the Way classes that were offered at my high school. I’ve always liked science and math throughout elementary, junior high and high school and I saw that engineering was the way to apply both of those together and I definitely liked the applied side of it more. Where you’re using the concepts to build something, make something happen, utilize it and actually do something.

NF: So Iowa City, that’s kind of funny since that’s the home to the University of Iowa, so why did you choose Iowa State University.

CL: I started college at a liberal arts school in Wisconsin and I was really enjoying that but I was planning to transfer to an engineering school in the future so I wanted to get a liberal arts experience before going to an engineering school. There I saw that I really loved physics, so I was taking the physics and math classes that would be required for the engineering curriculum but without doing the engineering there because they do not have an engineering department. So after two years there I had really enjoyed learning about physics and doing a lot of physics and math, I was really excited to apply it more and do engineering which is using those physics concepts much more directly than just learning about them. And Iowa State was a great option for coming back to Iowa and getting to do mechanical engineering. I think mechanical [engineering] is my favorite because it seems the most basic, the most inherent to everything. It’s actually how you build a device that can be used to build other things or be used to accomplish a very specific task so it seems like the most close to physics and the purest application, which is what I like.

NF: Right. So as I mentioned at the top of the show, you’re part of Iowa State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders and you were with the group over the winter break here when they went over to Ullo which is in the country of Ghana in West Africa. So why don’t you just tell me a little bit about EWB’s efforts.

CL: So EWB here at Iowa State is a chapter of the national organization EWB USA and that has very specific project goals and timelines for how a chapter sets up a commitment and partnership with a community. From what I’ve seen it’s a wonderful program and I’m very impressed by what they set up and how they lead us into building that partnership because we actually do a five-year partnership for every project that the chapter does with a community. So we partnered with Ullo about six years ago and we’ve traveled five of those six years to spend time and work with the community each year. The first year was just getting to know the community. It’s called an assessment trip, so seeing what their needs are, what’s present in the community, who they are as people, getting to know them personally. In the years after that, the second one was surveying trip to assess the water potential in the area because their access to water was very clearly the highest need, especially for this high school, which is in the Ullo community. So Ullo is about 1000 people living in a small town then they have a boarding high school that has 1000 students. So when all of those students are there it doubles the population and really strains their water resources which are all hand-pumped wells throughout the community. So people are traveling anywhere from half a kilometer to two or three kilometers to pump water every day. And when the students are there that creates really long lines so we quickly found that addressing water was what we wanted to do and so we had a trip that was surveying, doing hydrogeology surveying to find out where was a good place to drill a borehole. Next trip was drilling a borehole to see what yield it could get and add another hand pump to the community. Between each of those trips we were doing lots of designs and revisions to see what type of project would work. What we found was that mechanizing an existing borehole in the community to have a solar-powered pump on it and then piping the water one-point-three kilometers up to the high school to provide water for the high school was the best option. This was because they don’t have any boreholes that are large enough to supply water for the entire community and high school. That would dry run the borehole very quickly so we need to use less water from each borehole than provide for the entire community. So we decided to focus on the high school to really help these students be able to get water at their dorms, rather than every day walking for, depending on the time of year since when it gets drier they have to walk even farther and wait in line, so it could be hours every day and all through the night to collect water. So we focused on providing water to the high school through this implementation trip. In December 2018 I was very excited to be on the travel team that was working on doing the full implementation of the mechanized system. What we were doing was after the full year of planning and designing this system, we were there while the solar panels were installed and the controller for the solar-powered pump, put the pump into the borehole, and laid all the piping from the borehole up to the school, which is one-point-two kilometers. And installed the storage tanks that hold the water and a chlorine system to keep the water clean. So when we got there the trenches were dug for the pipes to be laid in and when we left there was a solar-powered pump pumping water all the way up to the high school and filling the storage tanks that people could use the taps there to collect water.

NF: Wow. So it sounds like you all have been real busy your last few years out there.

CL: Yeah.

NF: That’s great. That’s really cool. Real quick just to back up a bit, what is your role on the team or your title?

CL: Last year, I was the VP of engineering. So we have a president of the club who helps in the whole organization structure, but then we have VPs for fundraising, communications, membership. Being the engineering VP, I was working with, we had six group leads in our chapter. So we have about 70 general members who come every week to our weekly meeting and then we divide into engineering groups based on what we need to focus on that semester. So last year we had five engineering groups focused on different parts of the project. One was planning the solar power. One was planning the distribution system. One was planning the storage tanks. Another was planning the operations and maintenance. And our last one was kind of a catch-all, as things came up they addressed it and did the research to figure out how to address that new issue. So I worked with those five group leads to keep the whole project on track. In particular, I was working on contracting with the organization that we worked with in Ghana who builds these water supply projects.

NF: Cool. So what were some of the mechanical engineering specific concepts and techniques, stuff that you learn in the classroom during your time at Iowa State, what are some of those skills and techniques that you and EWB applied to your most recent trip there?

CL: Some of the really specific ones were actually looking at the actual head of the system. We had to see how much power our pump needs to pump the water as high as we want it from underground. Our pump is set about 28 meters underground then there’s an elevation change when the pipe is going up to the school. Then looking at how big our concrete pads need to be for storage tanks to sit on. It was very specific questions that are very similar to homework questions, like: How big does this tank need to be? How fast will the water flow out of it? And those are much more fun to do when you actually get to build it later and see it happen. But what really stood out for me is that engineering concept of fully understanding the system, understanding how all of the parts interact, were the most important thing when we were actually implementing it because things would change. Something would be different than when we planned, something would not be working right so we had to understand the whole system well enough that we could make a small change in one place and see how it would affect everything else and plan out what would be the best thing to do everything because of that change.

NF: Yeah. That’s cool. I guess that must be pretty enriching to your Iowa State experience to actually apply the stuff you learn here in the classroom to real world situations. One day when you go out and have a career, it would be very similar I imagine. So that’s great. What were some of the challenges you encountered and what did you and the team do to overcome those challenges?

CL: We had made a fantastic design that we were really excited about and had worked really hard on but that’s not exactly what was implemented. During the real implementation process, things changed and things weren’t exactly what you thought they were going to be. One thing that our preparation worked really well for was making sure we had a plan for how it would work and then we also had contingency plans for if that’s not going to work or if this part gets delayed, what do we do to make sure we can keep moving forward. We had a really tight schedule. We spend about two and a half weeks in the community and that’s over winter break so we don’t really have time to stay there longer. So we wanted to see the whole thing implemented in that timeframe. Some of our difficulties were if parts didn’t arrive exactly when we thought they were going to, we don’t really have time to wait. So we did a lot of knowing what parts we needed to work on first and if we needed to wait a couple days for a part, what can we be working on next to make sure the whole project didn’t get delayed. So we built in a lot of contingency time and a lot of catching up time and we used all of it and got it done.

NF: Cool. Is that part of what you learn in the curriculum too? Having backup plans for if things don’t go according to plan?

CL: Yeah. I’ve heard my professors bring that up and say ‘Real engineering doesn’t go according to plan. Things will go wrong, just assume that.’ And I thought we made such a good plan, I thought we had covered everything, how could anything go wrong and it still did. So it was very true and a good experience to see how actually implementing an engineering projects is. Because it’s very different than making a perfect design and just following it exactly how you had planned. That’s not realistic so it made me appreciate how much work engineering is. Once you have a plan getting the plan done is a whole nother task but it’s much more rewarding and much more fun to see the results of the plan and the work of making it happen.

NF: Cool. Happy to hear you and the team were quick on your feet to be able to make those adjustments when needed. So what’s the next step for EWB’s project here in Ullo? Are you done in Ullo and moving on to the next project or what exactly is EWB’s next step here.

CL: So part of that five year commitment for each project that EWB USA has, is the last year is doing a monitoring trip. They want to make sure once a project has been implemented, is it actually working for the community, is it fulfilling their needs, is it optimal, can it be improved. So something we’re for sure working on, is next year we’ll be traveling again to monitor the system, make any changes that are needed, see what can be used. Actually it’s very exciting since we just got our first set of data and we built the system to hopefully provide about 50,000 liters of water everyday, but it turns out the students are only using around 35,000 liters of water each day, so there’s excess water that can maybe be used for another project in the community which is exciting. We didn’t know that would be the case. We’re also working on different projects. We’re going to continue our partnership with Ullo. They’re incredibly wonderful to work with. So committed and ready to work on any different project we would be interested in and the needs they have are perfectly applicable to the engineers in our group. We can really see a lot of ways we could be working on buildings that are needed there, improving water supply systems and irrigation systems so it’s really exciting when people get to look at, so this is all the information our travel team brought back. What are projects we would be interested in working on here. Where could we use the skills we’re learning to build another project there that would be helpful. So we’re going to continue in Ullo and decide which project we should implement next.

NF: Cool. Well I hope the encouraging data keeps coming your way. Ok so now for a moment here, pretend like a 16- or 17-year old high school student is listening or perhaps even a freshman here at Iowa State is listening, what would be your pitch them to encourage them to get involved with EWB, whether they’re an engineer or involved with communications or marketing or business. What would be your pitch to encourage them to get involved with EWB?

CL: I think Iowa State has done a good job of highlighting in the curriculum that engineering is not just solving problem sets and knowing how to use an equation, it’s also what are you building, how do you build it best and what are the effects of it. I think that’s something that’s gotten highlighted more and more in the curriculum which is a change from the 1960s engineering mindset. It’s a really good way to look at, I like doing math, I like using engineering equations and I like my classes, but I want to do something that is actually meaningful and is actually important. As engineers we have a lot of knowledge. We are learning very specific things that do important things that we use every day. We use these buildings, we use machines every single day so that information we can use to do something really important. In this case, it’s people halfway around the world that don’t have that infrastructure that can really improve their lives. So I think EWB is a great way, hopefully people already want to help other people that have needs that want to be addressed, and EWB is a really good way to see how engineering can be the answer to those problems. Engineering can really improve a lot of the issues people are facing.

NF: Right. Yeah that’s great. I think perhaps we take for advantage the infrastructure and the things we have in place here and you don’t think that in other parts of the world so don’t have something as simple as a water system. We just turn on a faucet and pour a glass of water but it’s not always that simple. So up until now, what would you say has been your most memorable experience from your time here at Iowa State?

CL: It’s definitely still related to EWB to answer that question. Because it would be when I came back from the trip in January 2019, coming back to our first EWB general meeting we had a large presentation by the travel team about everything we did, everything the community said, and we had a huge party because this was five years of work from hundreds of Iowa State students who have been in the club for different semesters. It was successful and the community is getting to benefit so much and they’re so excited about it so getting to come back to the club and share with them all of the success and support and excitement from the community about this project that we had completed, that was the most memorable thing that has happened.

NF: Great. Yeah that’s awesome. It has to be rewarding to see you hard work having a result. So when will you be graduating and do you have any plans or anything you’d like to do once you graduate?

CL: I’m planning on doing a co-op next semester. So I’ll be doing my last semester in the spring and graduating in spring 2020. I’ve been interested in renewable energy research so I’d like to go to grad school for mechanical engineering related to solar energy.

NF: That’s great. Well hey I appreciate this conversation. It’s been insightful. I’ve learning a lot and I hope the listeners have learned a lot so thank you for taking time to talk to us for this.

CL: Thank you.

NF: Good luck with the rest of your semester and I hope EWB keeps up the great work that you’ve been doing. Thanks for listening to Factor Analyses. Be sure to click on ‘subscribe’ to be kept in the loop on all of our new podcast episodes.

Outro: Factor Analysis is produced by Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. For a list of ways to keep up with the college, including more podcasts, social media and apps, go to engineering-dot-iastate-dot-edu. Music by Lee Rosevere and used under Creative Commons License.