Building Bridges: Engineers Put Their Studies to Use in Cameroon

Volunteering is a significant part of the much-celebrated “Lasallian mission” at Manhattan College, made clear from the past and present opportunities for students to offer their time through L.O.V.E. trips, Hurricane Sandy relief efforts and the post-grad program Lasallian Volunteers.

Though all of these ventures undoubtedly give back, it is rarer to find an opportunity that utilizes the exact skills and talents students explore during their studies in their majors. MC’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders is one of the few that does, and the club is taking their real-world experience one step further with their project to design and build a bridge in Cameroon.

Engineers Without Borders visited Cameroon on their first assessment trip to meet the community they will serve and to analyze the site for the bridge they will design. Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders, Manhattan College chapter.
Engineers Without Borders visited Cameroon on their first assessment trip to meet the community they will serve and to analyze the site for the bridge they will design. Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders, Manhattan College chapter.

Engineers without Borders (EWB) is a national nonprofit organization that partners in-need communities around the world with aspiring engineers to design and complete “sustainable engineering projects.” The college established its college chapter of EWB in 2011.

Student chapters can adopt volunteer projects through the national organization, and a short time after the club started, the MC members applied – and were later accepted – for the project in Cameroon, which involved building a proper bridge over a river in the village of Mbirbua.

David Pecorini, a second year civil engineering graduate student, has been involved with the club since it began during his undergrad years.

“We decided to do Cameroon, in Africa, mostly because it had the cheapest projected listing price on the site,” Pecorini said.

Each chapter has to fund the entire project—from travel expenses to the actual cost of supplies–entirely on their own.

“It was also because at the time there was one chemical engineering student in the club and eight civil engineers, and a lot of the projects had to do with water quality. So, we felt the strength of the group then was better suited for a civil engineering project,” he added.

Now, Pecorini said, the group is a strong mix of chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering students, with a slightly larger number of civil engineers due to the club’s history.

Anita Hot, a transfer student from SUNY Oswego who is now a senior chemical engineer, has been an active part of the bridge project and remembers when she first heard about EWB at the college.

“When I found out Engineers without Borders was basically outreach plus getting engineering experience, I thought, that’s amazing,” she said.

After a lot of fundraising, mostly on Facebook and their project website through EWB, a few members of the group embarked on their first trip of five to Cameroon this past March.

This was the assessment trip where three club students—Pecorini, Hot, and graduate civil engineer Carolyn Brazier—collected data on the area where the bridge would be constructed and interacted with the people of Mbirbu.

“I think the coolest part of it was that you could tell they were learning things along the way,” Pecorini said of their time surveying the area.

“When you’re surveying, you have to mark an area as a reference point so you can be consistent every time,” he explained. “We had one marker in a mud area, and we told them [the villagers] how important it was to keep it there. And the next day when we came back, they had put a little palm gate around it, which meant that it was an act of God and no one should ‘mess with it.’”

Pecorini said one of the main reasons the villagers need the bridge is for the rainy season in the summer, when flood waters can rise up to four feet. The current “bridge” in use is made from branches and twigs.

This year the club leadership positions, at least concerning the project, are being handed down to undergraduate civil engineering students Nelson da Luz and Adam Rothman. The chapter’s professional mentor, Pat Arnett, a structural engineer at Robert Silman Associates, accompanied the students on the trip in March and has been meeting with da Luz, Rothman and Hot to work on the bridge design.

“Using data collected from the assessment trip this past March as well as using information from photos and video of the river where we are building the bridge, we have been able to more accurately design things such as the bridge height and length,” da Luz said of the designing.

Though the group originally planned to return to Cameroon this winter or spring to build the foundations for the bridge, they ultimately decided against it due to the current terrorism in Nigeria and the Ebola outbreak. In the meantime, they hope to continue fundraising as much as possible for the next trip, hopefully the year after, and for the ones beyond.

“They will need at least twice the amount of funds because the trip length will be at least doubled, since the upcoming trip entails the installation of the bridge foundation,” said the chapter’s faculty advisor Elizabeth Lennon, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical engineering.

“Engineers Without Borders often works in regions of the world with less established infrastructure and varying political climates, which can lead to unique challenges,” she added. “In developing solutions to the original problem and emergent, unpredictable challenges, students and faculty alike gain a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the adaptive-ness and flexibility needed to realize sustainable design solutions in an international setting.”

Pecorini said the college’s chapter of EWB acted mainly as a project-club over the past three years, completely focusing on the bridge project, and this year they have decided to change the structure to make sure it works as a regular campus club as well. Though da Luz and Rothman are the new project managers, junior civil engineer Katie Lang is acting as the club’s president, dealing with its general duties as a resource for students.

“We volunteer for Habitat for Humanity in Breezy Point,” Lang said of how the club functions outside of the bridge project. “And then it’s just normal club things—we’re doing Safe Halloween, a mock-career fair on Monday, doing gingerbread bridges around the holidays—just anything to drum up awareness and fundraising in general. Every little thing counts.”