Jeff Moss never expected his engineering education at Montana State University would include carrying a 44-pound water can on his head or drawing machine designs in the red dirt of Africa.

Learning to do the unexpected is just one of many skills acquired by the students who make up the award-winning MSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Moss, 20, a junior in environmental engineering and this year’s EWB president, was one of 25 EWB club members who traveled this summer to western Kenya to advance the project MSU students started in 2004.

Knowing nothing about Third-World development, the original EWB students accepted an assignment from the national EWB to bring clean water wells and sanitary latrines to 58 elementary schools in the poor Khwisero district, where villagers live by subsistence farming.

Each year, new MSU students take up the challenge, aiming not only to provide healthier drinking water but to relieve Kenyan children of the chore of hiking more than a mile to fetch water every day from dirty water holes, which cuts into their schooling, particularly for girls.

“The people we worked with are so inspiring,” Moss said of the Kenyan parents, teachers, community members and EWB partners.

“The theme of the summer was trying new things,” said Kiera McNelis, 21, a Belgrade High graduate, chemical engineering student and past EWB president.

New things attempted this summer included using a new design to build four composting latrines. Using designs drawn up in an engineering class, students oversaw construction of their first system for catching rainwater, running it through a sand filter and storing it in an underground tank at a school where the bedrock made drilling a well too difficult.

They finally broke ground on their first pipeline system, which has been three years in the making. It will bring piping water from a high-quality well to several villages and eventually to a health clinic and a market. Villagers have committed to digging trenches for the water pipes.

MSU students also brought 1,200 pairs of eyeglasses, which were donated by the Gallatin Lions Club and distributed at two clinics.

This summer’s work will bring to 14 the number of schools with either a well, sanitary latrine or both. However, a baby boom means Khwisero now has 61 schools to serve.

Students said it was a pretty successful summer. “Everybody worked well as a team,” Moss said.

One of the biggest parts of success has nothing to do with engineering. Instead it depends on strengthening a committee of local school board members, parents and residents who can take charge of maintaining the water and latrine projects after the students are gone.

“Really I think what EWB’s overall goal is to build capacity in the community to solve their own problems, to make it so we’re building ourselves out of a job,” Thiel said.

One big lesson students learned this summer was how to deal with corruption. The pipeline, designed three years ago by a6n MSU engineering class, was delayed last year while waiting for a grant promised by Kenyan legislators. This summer, it appeared that some in the government were attempting to manipulate the grant to pocket about 17 percent of the funds under the guise of “taxes” and “processing fees,” said Chris Maus, 23, a civil engineering junior from Greenough.

EWB leaders with experience in student government like Joe Thiel and Matt Smith stayed up late, reading the fine print of the state procurement act by head lamp, and then told off the authorities. Local people on the water committee then were able to stand up and demand their full grant, which was “really beautiful,” McNelis said.

Moss said one exciting experience came when he tried to help the village women cook in a cooking hut. The smoke was so bad, he said, “I was struggling to breathe. I thought this is crazy. The smoke cuts years off the lifespan of women.”

So he and other students decided to make a fume hood and chimney as a gift for their host family. They found a metalworker in the market who spoke no English.

“It was hilarious,” Moss said. “I was drawing stuff in the dirt.”

It only cost $12 and it worked, collecting about 80 percent of the smoke, Moss said.

Texel Feder, 18, a liberal studies and economics student from Helena, said she came home keenly aware of how lucky the students are to have refrigerators, showers and grocery stores. And they don’t have to carry heavy water cans on their heads.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at

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