Keilin Jahnke GE2012: Engineering to help humanity

Charlotte Collins and Madeleine Hubbard
10/2/2017 11:08:15 AM

Keilin Jahnke says she loves being an engineer because she actually loves to work with people. While those passions might not seem to align, Jahnke calls her work with rural water projects “a perfect blend” of all her interests. 

Jahnke in Honduras co-leading a trip for the Honduras Water Project.
Jahnke in Honduras co-leading a trip for the Honduras Water Project.
Having recieved a Bachelor's at ISE in General Engineering (now called Systems Engineering and Design), now a PhD student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Jahnke says her favorite part of her work has always been “the people aspect.”

Her ISE senior design project helped her realize engineering solutions would likely take her out of the lab. She focused on issues tied into collecting leaf samples. The project forced her outdoors for some context on the problem she couldn’t wholly grasp from behind a screen. In theory, she might have been able to engineer a solution in the lab to make the process of collecting samples more ergonomic; in practice, it wasn’t the case.

“We realized it was the perfect example of how (with) engineering, you can’t necessarily just sit in the lab and engineer something, and expect it to work everywhere,” Jahnke says. “It was really fun to get to work with people and get feedback, surveys.”

Jahnke fell in love with “the people aspect” of engineering in her undergraduate years. She felt the breadth of ISE’s program allowed her to find her own way; Jahnke crafted her undergraduate focus herself, and labeled it “sustainable development.” 

She finished her undergraduate degree in General Engineering in 2012 and currently teaches classes in technology and engineering geared toward creativity, innovation, and international engineering efficacy, but another focus of hers is Akelos, a non-profit consulting group that troubleshoots water projects in developing countries. 

Akelos was started by Jahnke and six colleagues who were all involved with the Honduras Water Project course, which is offered to undergraduates and graduates at the University. The class spans two semesters and takes students to Honduras to collect data first-hand on a rural water project.

“It's really fun to travel and see the students interact with the community, and getting to know people there and realizing that they’re people just like us—they just happen to live in a different part of the world,” Jahnke says.

Since the course began in 2013, Jahnke has been teaching the course with Ann Perry-Witmer. In Akelos, Jahnke offers a veteran perspective on the potential pitfalls of water projects beyond just general construction issues. 

“The goal [of Akelos] is to help water projects become a success, and stay successful. Many projects fail to meet the needs of the client, and so it’s thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of people's time not living up to its full potential,”

Current well in Keur Balla Marie, Senegal, where Akelos is working with community members and two other organizations to improve local access to water.
Current well in Keur Balla Marie, Senegal, where Akelos is working with community members and two other organizations to improve local access to water.
 says Jahnke. “Essentially, we’re consultants to other organizations who are working on water projects and we help with the technical, social, political and cultural aspects of water projects.”

Jahnke's work has taken her to Honduras, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Mali. Jahnke also works on a startup based out of Champaign developing solar stoves called Sun Buckets. The stoves are able to store energy at a high temperature to allow the user to cook at night. The team sold their first batch this spring.

Jahnke’s work as both a student, instructor and volunteer have all been intensive in engineering solutions to complex issues. The countries she works in span the globe and her position changes from commitment to commitment, but the projects she works on have the same key element that initially drew her to engineering: the human element.

“That’s the goal, just to help people who want to help people.”

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