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Ben Gelhaus: Solving problems in Tanzania and beyond

Ben Gelhaus likes finding solutions to big problems. As a University of Minnesota chemical engineering student searching for a study abroad opportunity, he was immediately drawn to a winter break College of Science and Engineering (CSE) Global Technical Seminar that focused on engineering water supply solutions in Tanzania.

“This seminar stood out to me,” he said. The seminar was “Design for Life: Water in Tanzania,” led by Paul Strykowski, CSE associate dean of undergraduate programs and professor of mechanical engineering.

With support from several scholarships at the University (including 3M Scholarships, a William E. Brooke Scholarship, and a CSE Student Affairs Scholarship), Gelhaus was able to take advantage of study abroad opportunities and travel to Tanzania to work on clean water projects.

Working with St. Paul Partners, a nonprofit organization, CSE students provide the plan, St. Paul Partners raises money, and local Tanzanians provide the labor to complete the project months after the students have returned home.

In January 2015, Gelhaus traveled with 11 other CSE students to Dar es Salaam. Over a few days, they traveled by bus to Iringa and then to villages in the countryside. Gelhaus was one of four students sent to a hospital in Ilula, a city of 28,000 where livestock run wild and children played everywhere.

The hospital was a complex of small, clean buildings for care and housing—without adequate water. The local fundi bomba—Swahili for “plumber”—regularly had to open and close pipes to route the feeble supply to the various buildings.

“A better water system was needed for sure. Our challenge was to go in there and figure out how to get water to where it was needed,” Gelhaus said.

Gelhaus and the team soon confirmed the water supply was adequate. They did some quick calculations on the existing pipes. The design seemed proper, however, the students suspected that hard water had caused the pipes to scale. “The scale was decreasing the water pressure and increasing the friction so water couldn’t pass through the pipes,” Gelhaus said.

“It was all about collecting as much data as you possibly could,” he said. Team members interviewed hospital staff about the facility, water use, and water demand. Team members often heard widely varying answers to questions.

“Usually you would have to ask the same question two or three times to get a general idea of what the real issue was,” Gelhaus said. The team spent a lot of time consulting the fundi bomba, a man named Habakkuk, who spoke broken English. “Our team of four became very close with Habakkuk,” he said.

Within days, they devised their solution, which was to re-plumb the hospital in stages with non-scaling plastic pipe. The work would be backbreaking but not high tech. “It’s getting the pipes, the resources to the village, and then digging to make sure the pipes can be buried underground,” Gelhaus said.

Gelhaus won’t see the results of his work. Student groups who traveled to Tanzania in January 2016 and those who go in 2017 will complete the project. Other groups will plan and design new projects.

Gelhaus graduated in May 2016 with a degree in chemical engineering and now uses his problem-solving skills as a product developer at Post Consumer Brands in Lakeville, Minn.

What he learned in Tanzania stays with him today. Three weeks in Tanzania taught Gelhaus that communication skills can trump engineering knowledge.

“When you’re trying to solve real-world problems, it’s more important to have the people skills to ask the right questions to get the right information rather than just being a number-crunching guru. Understanding your problem before you try to solve it is key,” he said.

Modified from a story written by Greg Breining for the College of Science and Engineering Inventing Tomorrow magazine.