In their own words: EWB-WWU student engineers (part 1)

Kathrin Klemm provides a glimpse into what sustainability means for the 2016 WWU Engineers Without Borders project in Japura, Peru

Kathrin Klemm is a senior studying civil engineering with minors in German and mathematics. She is the design team technical lead for the 2016 EWB–WWU project in Japura, Peru. After graduation she plans to work as a naval architect at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyards. Klemm was one of two students (the other was Lauren Pernu, senior mechanical engineering major) to be named 2016 WWU Engineering Student of the Year. “I feel so honored to have been chosen for this award,” she says. “There are so many incredible engineers in our department.” Kathrin gave the following presentation at the 2016 EWB-WWU fundraising gala in February.

Before I joined EWB, I believed that I knew what humanitarian work was all about. I had gone on a couple of mission trips and done the work. I was a seasoned mortar mixer and semi-pro block layer.

Little did I know.

Last year, I came in as an EWB project team member working on the design of the water system that was implemented in Peru during last summer, and this year, I am the technical lead of our design team.

The Walla Walla University Chapter of EWB may not have a long history yet, but we are aiming to make it an illustrious one. After working on school buildings with communities in Honduras and gravity-fed water systems with communities in Peru, this year we have set out to help the community of Japura, Peru, to realize their goal of having electricity.

Sustainability is extremely important to the EWB organization, and I would like to give you a glimpse of what that means for our project in particular. In my view, there are three important aspects of this process, especially for a student-led team. The first of these is travel.

Last year, as we were designing for the gravity-fed water system in Panteñeque, I imagined what our building site would be like—how the different parts of the system would fit into the landscape based on the descriptions of people who had been before me. As I’m sure you could guess, when we arrived and made the long climb to the community, I realized that I could never have accurately imagined what that place was like.

Just as I could never have imagined the surroundings, the people that we were working with had never fully taken shape in my mind either. I knew that they needed clean water. Who doesn’t? But there is nothing like meeting someone face-to-face who will benefit from all the hours you spent wrestling with AutoCAD.

You may ask: What does travel have to do with sustainability? I would say travel has everything to do with sustainability. On the one hand, as students, we are developing our intuition, and one of the most important tools to develop that intuition is grasping the reality of a project.

For instance, the reality of our project last summer was an hour and a half hike to reach the work site—at 14,000 feet above sea level. I’m from Colorado, but still, that’s really high! We tried to help carry as many of the materials as we could, but even the grandmas would pass us on the trail loaded down with pipe and rebar and wood. It was incredible.

On the other hand, as engineers, we must come to know the people we are serving—no matter if they live here in Walla Walla or in the mountains of the Andes. Even if we don’t speak the same languages, there are ways to connect. The rural language in Peru is Qqetchua, and there was a little boy who, as far as we knew, only spoke two words of Spanish: ¡Buenas Dias! And he greeted us heartily with those two words every time we saw him.

It is one thing to work hard, but quite another to work with heart.

During the trip last summer, not only did we implement one project, but we also began preparing for the next. Some of us spoke with members of the community, while others surveyed the rivers in the area to investigate the possibility of a micro hydropower project that could provide the electrification the community had been requesting for years. We found that it was possible! So we surveyed the sites where systems could be built in Japura on each side of their valley.

This in depth, hands-on preparation leads me to the second aspect of sustainability: responsible design development. This is an intuitive item that can be much more difficult than it may sound. The first question you must ask is: What does “responsible” mean? Let me be the first to tell you, it means many different things to many different people. Here are some of our solutions.

First, as students, we work with very experienced mentors who work in the industry and have the ability to check our calculations, and our sanity, when we submit items for review. They work with us from start to finish, and it is an amazing working relationship.

But that’s the easy part.

Before they can have anything to check, we have to do our research. This is no small feat, since not many of us have taken a specific course on how to build a micro hydroplant in America, let alone in Peru. Fortunately our professors are more than willing to point us in the right direction, and I am happy to say that we have now completed nearly all of the design. And please note that all parts are available to be purchased in Peru.

Responsible design also entails the nitty gritty details of community dynamics and their ownership of these systems. Our partner community is actually two neighboring communities separated only by a river. We have learned that these neighbors really don’t have much to do with one another. Not only that, but these people are not used to dealing with money—theirs is a barter system. Since EWB requires that the community make a 5 percent contribution to the materials being used, the budget has become a real challenge for us. How can we make our system as affordable as possible while still accomplishing what we set out to do? This is an open-ended question, and if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

The last element of sustainability is service. Though we are working with the people of this community, we are also serving them with the knowledge we have gained through our studies here at Walla Walla University, where we stand for generosity in service.

I began be telling you how little I knew. And it’s true. Little did I know about long reports and looming deadlines, frustrating design work and pushups when we’re working late. Little did I know of the close-knit team, the camaraderie, and ultimately the unbelievable satisfaction of seeing the people of the community achieve their goals.

Posted March 23, 2016

Kathrin Klemm, WWU senior civil engineering major