Engineering a better life for rural communities

University of Iowa engineering students work with a national organization to design and build footbridges in rural communities around the world.

Published: February 9 2014 | 4:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:22 am in

Imagine not being able to travel across the Cedar River from the west side of Cedar Rapids to the east side. Or across the Iowa River, which divides the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. Would you lose access to health care? Groceries? Education? Employment opportunities?

“I just couldn’t fathom living without bridges. I couldn’t imagine how different life would be,” says Katie Langenfeld, a sophomore environmental engineering student at the University of Iowa.

Yet, that’s the everyday reality for thousands of people around the world who live in rural areas that lack the infrastructure that most Americans take for granted. These rural community members rely on walking to get from place to place. When rivers swell during their region’s rainy season, crossing can become dangerous or impossible, leaving them without access to health care, schools, markets and more.

Enter Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit organization that builds pedestrian bridges in rural areas around the world, and its University of Iowa student chapter, Continental Crossings, led by Langenfeld and fellow engineering students Ian Nessler and Louie Hardin.

Since its founding in 2006, the student group has built five bridges, located in Peru, Zambia and Nicaragua. Students are currently designing and fundraising for a sixth, which is scheduled to be built this summer. The group currently has about 25 members, most of whom are engineering students. The students manage each bridge project from start to finish with the help of B2P’s technical resources and support.

“It’s awesome to be able to see a project go from the very beginning of finding a site all the way through to completion of a finished bridge,” Langenfeld says. “I think it’s pretty rare for a student organization to have an experience like that, with a real-life application that impacts the lives of people.”

The students work with a B2P program manager to identify a bridge site. They look for need and community buy-in as well as feasibility. The students survey the land and, with the assistance of guidelines from B2P and feedback from professional engineers, design a bridge for the site. The bridges must be able to be constructed from materials available locally at the site.

Here is where the engineering concepts that the students are learning in the classroom find real-world applications: “Pretty much every single civil design principle that you learn in school is applied to designing for the bridge,” Langenfeld says.

Nessler, a sophomore chemical engineering student, sees applications for his major, too.

“Last year I was awarded a Stanley grant to do research on how concrete accelerants affect the curing process,” he says. “Concrete takes a long time to dry and set and get to its full strength. So we use accelerants so it will dry faster and we can build the bridge in eight weeks instead of having to stay down there for three months.”

The group also spends a lot of time raising funds for the bridge project — this year, the students need to raise $16,000 just to cover construction costs. That total doesn’t include travel expenses.

“The biggest obstacle toward being able to build a bridge every single year is having funds,” Langenfeld says. “We’re working toward finding people who will donate annually to support the cause. Each donation is so important for these communities; it changes the lives of hundreds of people.” (Find information about donating at www.continentalcrossings.com)

Finally, a crew of seven students spends eight weeks living and working on site building the bridge. They work side-by-side with community members and local professionals, sharing knowledge about the building process and ensuring that someone local knows how to maintain the bridge for years to come.

“It’s their bridge,” Nessler says. “We’re not building it for us. They’re building it for themselves and we’re there to help them along.”

A “travel mentor” — a professional engineer — also comes along to ensure that the bridge is being built correctly.

In 2013, Continental Crossings won B2P’s Team of the Year Award after completing a 215-foot suspended bridge across a 70-foot-deep canyon between the community of Jicaro and the town of Esquipulas in Nicaragua. Before the bridge was built, people in Jicaro would lower themselves into the canyon and then wade or swim across. They also typically lost access to the town and its resources for six months of the year, when the river was too high to cross that way. Today, Bridges to Prosperity estimates that approximately 240 people cross the bridge every day.

This year, the students are working on a bridge in the Boaco region of Nicaragua.

This article originally appeared in The Gazette's "Discover Engineering" Engineers Week special section, published on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014.

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