Students make water filters
May 16, 2010

Lessons in Well Drilling Spill into the Classroom


A project to bring clean water to residents of Namawanga, Kenya, serves as an example in lesson plans for middle-school students.

Since 2006, student engineers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have teamed with residents of Namawanga, Kenya, to clean the town’s drinking water – and teach U.S. students in more than 100 middle and high schools math, science, and social studies.

Pastures flank the town’s streams and tests detected e.coli in the water. To solve the problem, the residents and students in Engineers Without Borders at UMass are drilling a well and building spring boxes around the water source to protect it from contamination.

At the same time, the UMass project is meshed with a multi-disciplinary curriculum for middle and high schools. The lessons spin off from an EWB video documentary about clean water for Kenyans. Teachers show a 15-minute documentary of the EWB project, then anchor their lessons in the cultural and scientific issues it encompasses.

The students learn about waterborne disease and well drilling, but they also discover that lasting solutions are more than just technical. “The idea is not to create a singular “solution,” but to provide the tools necessary for the community to help themselves,” said Tom Gilbert, president of the EWB chapter at UMass. “We believe that students and engineers are part of the solution to social inequalities,” he said.


Engineers Without Borders at UMass found bacteria in this water flowing from a spring box in Namawanga, Kenya.

STEM education through virtual engineering

Issues in water treatment is one of three curricula. The others are alternative fuel, based on a project with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York, and bridge construction in Nicaragua. In each, the students try to solve problems on their own and compare their ideas to the actual solutions used.

They get their hands dirty, too. In one lesson, students arrange gravel, sand and paper towels inside the cut-off top of a plastic soda bottle, then pour dirt, confetti and water over the top, simulating natural water filtration through the ground.

“We wanted to give the students a real-world, virtual engineering experience, similar to what a student might encounter as an EWB member and a professional engineer,” said Paul Feldman, executive producer at US Media Services, which produced the curricula. The videos try to engage students, spark imaginations and develop problem-solving skills, Feldman said.

No more stodgy stereotypes

The idea for the curricula sprung from the powerful testimonies of engineers returning from their work in under-served communities.

“We realized they were coming back completely transformed, not just as individuals, but in how they perceived their engineering careers,” said Marina Stenos of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, who leads the curricula program.

To Stenos, the lesson plans are more than study tools. They are billboards for careers in engineering.

“They’re changing the conversation,” she said. “This idea that engineers help people, that they make a difference in peoples’ lives is key.” The curricula counter the stereotypes of stodgy engineers and instead tell a story of people who provide real solutions for communities, she said.


The UMass team works at a spring box in Namawanga, Kenya.

ASME / E4C / YouTube

The curricula are aligned with public education standards, so teachers can easily include them in their lesson plans. They’ve been used in hundreds of schools around the country. And they are online for free download at ASMEorg and on our YouTube channel. An earlier, but similar version of the curricula is also available at Science360.

St.Regis Mohawk Tribe Biofuel Project
Curriculum plus videos

Namawanga Potable Water Supply
Curriculum plus videos

Nicaragua Bridge Project
Curriculum plus videos

Now on our YouTube channel
STEM curricula / Engineers Week video series playlist

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