Published: May 7, 2019 By

Meet Curtis Gile, Department of Mechanical Engineering Outstanding Graduate for International Engagement

Engineers Without Borders team with water catchment system

Curtis Gile and Engineers Without Borders teammates stand at the base of a rainwater catchment system that they designed and built in Rwanda.  

Curtis Gile with locals in Rwanda

Curtis Gile and teammate, Nicola van den Heever spend time with locals in Rwanda. 

“What’s amazing about engineering is you can literally create something that changes lives,” said mechanical engineering graduate Curtis Gile.

Though Gile grew up in Denver, not far from CU Boulder, his involvement with Engineers Without Borders led him to travel nearly 8,500 miles to Rwanda where he developed a system for collecting clean water. It also earned him mechanical engineering’s Outstanding Graduate for International Engagement award.

“There’s no better way to integrate with a community than by working alongside them,” Gile said. “When I returned to Rwanda for a second time, the friends I had made during my previous visit ran to see me.”

Engineers Without Borders, which started at CU Boulder 17 years ago, works alongside developing communities around the world, completing engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

Along with his teammate, Nicola van den Heever and mentor, Travis Greiman, Gile built rainwater catchment systems, designed to collect water from the roofs of large sheds. Rainwater is relatively clean, but the team treated it with bleach and developed methods for keeping out debris.

Gile said it has been amazing to see the locals change their perceptions around drinking water. Because of disease, they were fearful, but when Gile returned for a second time, he saw people had created their own versions of what Engineers Without Borders had built.

“The best thing that can happen is that the locals replicate what we’ve designed,” said Gile. “This means we’ve succeeded in making it easy to copy.”

An important focus for Gile has been ensuring that designs are sustainable. Recently, he has focused on local sourcing of materials, using wood instead of steel so the Rwandans could repair the catchment systems at lower costs without help from Engineers Without Borders.

“We listened closely to the locals, because they are the ones who will be living with our designs,” Gile said. “When locals disagreed with our recommendations, my mentor reminded me that people have known how to build things for hundreds years; only recently have we known why they work.”

Gile said he learned you will never have all the information you need, there’s no such thing as double-checking too many times and that it’s important that everyone is made to feel part of the same goal.

Beyond his degree in mechanical engineering, Gile has also been inspired by his time in Rwanda to pursue a second degree in economics.

“After seeing how a country can go from one of the worst genocides in the world to being a clean, safe place, I wanted to learn more about how countries develop,” Gile said. “This way, maybe one day I can affect even greater change.”

In support of his economics degree, Gile interned in Washington, D.C., with Sen. Michael Bennett where he determined optimal ways to finance paid family leave.

Gile will graduate in May 2019 before moving to Chicago where he will work for Techedge, an international consulting firm.  

Gile said his experience working internationally while at CU will only prepare him for what lies ahead.

“The world is only going to get smaller,” Gile said.