(TNS) — It's winter break at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and four undergraduate students with the school's Engineers Without Borders program have just flown into Nepal to design, build and implement a water filtration system for a school in Goduk.
Five minutes into a meeting with school officials and there's a problem: the school already has water. After some investigating, the students decide instead to create filters for one of a dozen tap stands around the village.
It was on an exploratory survey of the land that the group ran into a crew working on a slow sand filter for the area, which was in need of financial and technical support. After two pivots, that became the new school project, and work began.
Two more surprises were ahead: a change in location and a different flow rate required a pre-filter that was four times larger than the first design.
"We had to recalculate everything," said Madison Baker, one of the four-person student team that included Jordan Erdie, Noah Kaiser and Anna Iisa. "We pulled an all-nighter on that one."
That pivoting provided valuable experience that is giving EWB alums an edge in the competitive hiring process that follows -- and sometimes precedes -- graduation.
EWB, now in its 15th year, was born at CU by Professor of Civil Engineering Bernard Amadei, who is still an active professor. Today, the nonprofit has 1,600 members and more than 100 chapters in the U.S.
There are four EWB teams at CU in Boulder, with projects in Rwanda, Peru, Paraguay and Nepal. The current Nepalese project has been ongoing for two years; CU's part in it is over, but the work is being continued by non-governmental organizations.
The experience the students received over that two-year period is hard to match in the private sector. Internships in civil and environmental engineering are available, but not plentiful.
"There's not tons available, so it's going to take a lot of perseverance and legwork to get one," said Kevin Tone, vice president at Boulder consulting firm JVA.
And most internships wouldn't allow for the same kind of hands-on work students get to do with EWB, added Mike Gill, principal at Denver consulting firm Stantec and a mentor for CU's EWB Nepal team.
"Oftentimes the level of responsibility is less" in internships than with EWB projects, Gill said. "We're throwing students out to the other side of the world. They're on their own, making decisions and having to live with them.
"It's real-world experience that other students don't have."
Job prospects for graduates are pretty good for students with any level of work experience.
"Students get snapped up before graduation (and) often have multiple job offers," said Karl Linden, professor of environmental engineering at CU. "We have a top-ranked program in the country and have a lot of really good students in the program."
There aren't any statistics to demonstrate that EWB alums fair better in the job hunt, but anecdotally, Linden said, the evidence is there.
"I've never seen anyone not get a job."
A handful of former EWB-ers work at JVA in Boulder. And Gill himself hired a recent grad from the Nepal team.
"The biggest skills students gain out of this is resiliency," Gill said. "Sometimes you have a project, then you meet somebody in the woods and now your project is completely different, but you have to figure it out.
"That's the kind of thing you can't learn in school."
Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/shayshinecastle
©2017 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.