Student Engineers Without Borders Build Bridges in Bolivia
Shane Laros posted on October 14, 2016 |

A team of engineering students from Cornell University spent this year’s summer break in Bolivia. However, they weren’t visiting to take in the sights. Instead, these students spent their time building a 165-foot-long suspension bridge connecting one village to another.

The students eschewed their normal summer break to work with Cornell’s Engineers Without Borders Program (EWB), a student-led, interdisciplinary team focused on community-driven, sustainable development projects.

When the team arrived in Bolivia in mid June, they started digging the foundations for the concrete anchors on both sides of the Vitichi River, which runs between the town of Calcha and its agricultural fields, as well as its closest neighbor. The river is often a major barrier for the remote community during flood seasons, despite being crucial to their survival of their crops.

Cornell engineering students spent long days working on the bridge over a two-month span. (Image courtesy of Cornell University)
Cornell engineering students spent long days working on the bridge over a two-month span. (Image courtesy of Cornell University)

Mechanical engineering major Nathalie DeNey led the team of eight, and outlined some of the hurdles the group contended with during their build.

“We spent our entire first week just excavating,” DeNey said, “After that, it seemed like we were constantly mixing concrete. There wasn’t a day that went by where we weren’t mixing concrete.”

Much of the work was done by hand - including mixing the concrete - until electricity could be run from the town to the opposite side of the river.

Both DeNey and environmental engineering major Susan McGrattan noted that the best part of the project was the installation of the crossbeams and decking boards onto the tensioned steel cables of the structure.

“You’ve been digging these holes, mixing concrete for so long,” McGrattan said. “And then actually getting to put the wood out on the bridge and have it actually become a bridge, it was just very exciting.”

Nathalie DeNey of Cornell University’s Engineers Without Borders adds her handprint to the bridge foundation her team built in Bolivia. (Image courtesy of Cornell University)
Nathalie DeNey of Cornell University’s Engineers Without Borders adds her handprint to the bridge foundation her team built in Bolivia. (Image courtesy of Cornell University)

“These students brought to fruition a permanent structure and lasting goodwill to a well-deserving community who worked alongside us and opened their homes,” said Rebecca Macdonald, the Swanson director of engineering student project teams. “Their motivation and commitment drove the project, with Cornell faculty, staff and alumni, along with family and friends, providing the support necessary to pull it off.”

The students didn’t just get to see how their expertise was applied in bridge building, but they also saw how it would directly impact the community where they stayed during the project. People from Calcha even helped the students celebrate for the 4th of July, with a party around a bonfire.

“It was an adventure to be down there for eight weeks, and it was really worth it,” DeNey said.

“The lasting friendships that we formed from being there for an extended period of time were incredible. We’re still in contact with a lot of them; occasionally they get internet access, so we have Facebook friends in Calcha,” she added.

Cornell’s EWB team was supported by Engineers in Action (EIA), a U.S. non-profit that helped with logistics in getting the students to Bolivia. EIA executive director Rod Beadle noted his pride in the students.

“I always tell people that, as cynical as we get about kids these days, this generation is just so much more engaged and willing to do things that our generation just didn’t or couldn’t,” Beadle said. “And to take eight weeks out of your summer, you’re not getting paid for it … it says an awful lot that they’re willing to do that.”

EWB programs, particularly those based in universities, offer students exciting opportunities to see first hand how their expertise can have an effect on those who need it. For more information, visit Cornell’s EWB site or check out one of the many EWB programs worldwide.


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