Building Bridges in Morocco
Dhristie Bhagat, a junior biomedical engineering major, and Nina Morency-Brassard, Columbia College alum and the team's Peace Corps contact.
A group of Columbia Engineering students intend to kick off the summer with a six-week stay in Morocco, not as tourists, but as bridge engineers.
The Morocco team from Columbia’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) departs mid-May for the rural community of Ait Bayoud, located in the southern region of the North African country. They plan to build a suspended footbridge, spanning 200 feet, over the Tagawowt River so that residents will finally have a way to get to fresh food, medicine, their schools, and markets, during a three-month rainy season that typically prevents access to these necessities. Some 5,000 villagers are affected each year. In addition to beginning construction during this trip, the students also will educate residents on the safety and upkeep of the footbridge. The goal is to have the residents take ownership of the bridge and be responsible for its longterm maintenance.
To help them fund their project, the Morocco EWB team recently won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace. The organization is an initiative funded by Kathryn W. Davis to help undergraduate students design and implement their own grassroots projects during the summer months.
For Andrew Sumner, a member of the Morocco EWB team, this entire experience has been a valuable and rewarding one.
“This type of volunteer work speaks directly to the true calling of engineering,” said Sumner, a sophomore chemical engineering major. “Engineering isn’t necessarily just about the frontier of technology, it’s about improving the quality of life for everyone. Addressing basic needs through a project sourcing water or a footbridge uniting a geographically separated community is much more important than modern technology.”
This marks the first trip to Morocco for Sumner, though he has been involved with this particular project since the start of his freshman year. The Morocco project began in 2011 after a Columbia College alumna, Nina Morency-Brassard, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ait Bayoud, reached out to Columbia’s EWB chapter about the community’s particular challenge dealing with the rainy season.
A second assessment trip to Morocco included students Derek Huang, Dhristie Bhagat, Monica Agarwal, Caroline Shang, and Tim Weber, pictured with local residents above.
Derek Huang, program co-manager and Columbia Engineering materials science undergraduate
Sumner will be traveling to Morocco with fellow EWB volunteers Margaret Cowie, a sophomore in civil engineering, Kevin Ma, a junior in biomedical engineering, Garrett Ruggieri, also a junior in biomedical engineering, Anthony Clark, a graduate student in applied physics and applied mathematics, Eric Lee, a sophomore biology major, Tamar Caplan, a sophomore in civil engineering and engineering mechanics, Timothy Weber, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, and Rushal Rege, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. Columbia Engineering undergraduates Derek Huang and Caroline Shang are also closely involved in the Morocco project, and with the team, are working with faculty advisor, Professor Rene Testa, and professional structural engineers on the design and installation of the footbridge. They intend to incorporate synthetic polymer cable in their bridge design, which has been donated by MacArthur Fellow and Civil Engineering Adjunct Professor Theodore Zoli, who is also a national bridge chief engineer at HNTB Corp., an engineering, design, and construction management firm.
These partnerships are invaluable, said Shang, a biomedical engineering junior. For Shang, it has been a huge “honor” to work on the Morocco project. “I can’t believe as college students,” she said, “we can already make a significant impact in people’s lives halfway around the world.”
Added Sumner, “In about a year and a half we’ve gone from just receiving our initial contract with the community to full implementation of our own sourced, funded, and designed footbridge. So much has come together! This trip represents the culmination of all our hard work.”
Columbia’s EWB chapter also has volunteer teams currently working in Ghana and Uganda. The Ghana program centers its efforts on developing solutions for water management and sanitation in the rural community of Obodan, located in the eastern region of the country. In Uganda, EWB student volunteers have designed and implemented three rainwater-harvesting systems. This summer, they will return to the region to continue to monitor the quality of the water and the reliability of the system.
—Story by Melanie A. Farmer
Posted:May 15 2012