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Engineering students travel to build bridges

Mel Flanagan | Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A team of seven engineering students traveled to Nicaragua this summer to build a bridge connecting two communities — all in an effort to provide help to locals and take advantage of service projects for engineers at the University.


“There’s not that many opportunities at Notre Dame to link service with engineering, surprisingly,” team member and first-year graduate student Brittani Russell said. “This is one of the only ones.”

The project, which just finished its third year, teams up with the non-profit organization Bridges to Prosperity to allow civil engineering students to travel to a third-world country and build a bridge for an area that needs it. The group has previously built structures in Honduras and Guatemala.

Russell and the six others participated in a year-long course during which they designed the bridge and fundraised $30,000 for the materials and other costs.

The course required two trips to Nicaragua, one during fall break in which the team surveyed the site and one after the semester ended in May to build the bridge.

During the first trip, the group was not only able to begin planning how they were going to build the bridge, but they also met with local hardware stores to discuss buying supplies.

“It also gave us a little indication of how hot it was going to be,” Russell said. “I never really had an appreciation or understanding of how much you can sweat.”

The bridge, located in the municipality of Villa el Carmen between the villages of San Diego and San Bartolo, stretched 125 meters across and was 60 feet off the ground.

Community members worked alongside the students during construction, Russell said.

“If we come in and build something for them it’s not going to mean the same thing, they’re going to take it for granted,” she said. “Whereas if they help us it’s their bridge, they’ll take more responsibility and the bridge will last longer.”

However, the local people and customs also posed a challenge for the group. Russell said the way construction projects run in Honduras differs greatly from those in the U.S.

“One of the representatives [of Bridges to Prosperity] had ordered wood for us, but didn’t get a receipt or contract. He just gave them $1,000 of our money,” she said. “We were tracking that wood down for two or three weeks.”

While adjusting to the culture wasn’t difficult for native Guatemalan and team member Quiche Descamps, actually building the bridge was a challenge.

“Raising the cables took a lot of manpower, and digging under the midday sun left everyone exhausted,” Descamps, a senior, said.

Descamps participated in the project in his home country of Guatemala in the summer of 2010 as well.

“Building the first bridge really opened my eyes to the potential we as students have t­­o help, using what we learn in school, so I chose to stick with the project for another year,” he said.

Russell agreed the project provides a truly rewarding experience in which the team can see their work through, from design to completion and the impact it will have on the people living their everyday.

“It’s amazing to see how your work can benefit other communities,” she said. “I’ve been to developing countries before and you can really see how civil infrastructure can help.”