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NMSU students build bridge in Nicaragua, establish ties with local communities

NMSU's Engineers Without Borders group exists to help bridge the technological gap between the haves and have-nots around the world, bringing engineering expertise to those who have need of it but can least afford to pay for it. The group, a registered student organization, also provides muscle power, or as they put it, "implementation," as they actually construct the things they have designed.

In May,18 group members and two faculty advisers of Engineers Without Borders-NMSU constructed a 56-meter suspension bridge for the small Nicaraguan town of Hondura Azul. After laying the final plank in the bridge, group members and town residents held a brief inauguration ceremony. NMSU participants pictured on the bridge with village children include faculty adviser Kenny Stevens, Ana Brouwer, Jessica Rodriguez, Benjamin Mendez, Sam Monger, Santos Gonzales, Gerardo Soria, Richard Barnitz, Dorothy Lanphere and Patrick Al-Obaidi. (Courtesy Photo)

In late May, EWB-NMSU completed the essential elements of a pedestrian bridge in the small Nicaraguan community of Hondura Azul. The 56-meter suspension bridge, built in partnership with the international non-governmental organization Bridges to Prosperity, will provide rainy-season access to school, medical care, food and other supplies for some 600 people in three villages whose lives are typically disrupted by the seasonal rise in water level of the local river.

It was only two weeks earlier, shortly after the end of spring semester, that the 18 EWB-NMSU students and two faculty advisers journeyed to Hondura Azul, located about 120 miles north of Managua in the Condega municipio, or county. Building a bridge in two weeks was a daunting task for them, but the group proved that with thorough planning, teamwork, steadfast commitment, youthful energy and willingness to adapt to unexpected circumstances, the project was actually manageable.

This was a return visit for two of the project's team leaders, Jared Martinez, 2010-11 EWB-NMSU president, and Salvador Hernandez, current vice president, and for Kenny Stevens, one of the group's two faculty advisers and an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Technology and Surveying Engineering. In January the three of them had been there to meet with BTP representative Milosz Reterski and Osmin Casco, the county engineer of the Municipio de Condega. Their site assessment visit allowed them to get the lay of the land, including doing a topographic survey of the bridge site and pricing out construction costs.
Financing the project was a substantial challenge, so the group engaged in fundraising activities throughout much of the academic year. Dorothy Lanphere is the group's founder and former president who is currently pursuing a master's in electrical engineering. She reported that the Rotary clubs in Alamogordo and in Boulder, Colo., as well as several businesses, threw their support behind the project. The group's website lists the following external sponsors: Robins and Morton Construction, Birmingham, Ala.; Enterprise Electric Company, Nashville, Tenn.; Ivey Mechanical Company, Nashville, Tenn.; and Exponential Engineering Company, Fort Collins, Colo.

Among the on-campus supporters were Aggies Go Global and ASNMSU, NMSU's student government body. EWB members collected donations and sold T-shirts at a table on campus and also hired themselves out as manual laborers during their spring semester "chain gang" work-a-thon.

One secret of success was being able to tap into Bridges to Prosperity's accumulated wisdom. This was "Project #079" for that organization and the students made good use of the BTP design book. While it was the students themselves who made the calculations for this specific bridge, they were done in accordance with BTP design specifications.

The bridge design they chose was simple but elegant. The main support structures are large towers of stone, cinder blocks and concrete, one on each side of the ravine that the river runs through. Set deep in the ground, they are 12 feet by 12 feet at the base and stand 15 feet tall. Between these towers are hung strong cables, which not only support the basic bridge elements of cross beams, plank flooring and chain-link sides, but also serve as the hand rails.

The group capitalized on the diversity of members' interests, previous experience and academic background. While the majority of students are from the College of Engineering, others are majoring in, or have completed degrees in, biochemistry, business, communications disorders, community health, nutrition and Spanish. Many of the participants are fluent in Spanish.

When the team assembled on site, significant progress had already been made by the locals in terms of preparatory steps: they had dug and poured the foundations for the towers, a significant portion of the remaining materials for the towers had been brought in, vegetation had been cleared and tools had been collected. Working long days in sometimes very muddy conditions, the group proceeded to finish the support towers with the help of local masons. Next steps, extending over a full week, included installing the two anchors for the cables, hanging the cables, attaching re-bar for support and stability, adding the cross beams and, finally, laying the planking.

"Nothing was easy - and it's a very substantial bridge," said Sonya Cooper, a professor in ETSE. As the group's other faculty adviser, she participated in the first half of the project. "It's a pedestrian bridge, but it's also for the cows and for the horses and carts."

"The team leaders were amazing and all of the students were amazing," Cooper said. "They just rocked! They busted their you-know-whats and they got the bridge done! And the whole time there were on-the-ground engineering decisions that had to be made."
"This project was a great opportunity for me to implement my engineering skills," Hernandez said. "It's always a lot different applying what you learned during the class to what the actual application is. So I think that was a great deal for me as a student."

"Everybody got to do everything," said Lanphere. "So one day we were cutting re-bar, the next day we were treating the wood, the next day we were carrying buckets of concrete."

Although most of the team would have willingly stayed longer, May 25 marked the end of EWB's on-site participation in the project. They left a few elements to be completed, but the bridge was functional; most of the "heavy lifting" was done and the momentum they had created would carry the local participants on to completion.

Stevens is proud of what the organization accomplished. "What amazed me most about the group was this, I guess, specific purpose - they were going to finish no matter what!" He reports that the community members were amazed at these college kids putting in 20-hour days. The team laid the final planks on the day they left Hondura Azul.

Prior to the group's departure, Juan Zelaya Talavera, a village leader, and Osmin Casco, the county engineer, walked the bridge, following which the town held an inauguration ceremony. They even brought in an electric generator so they could play recorded music for dancing. According to Stevens, the community had first requested such a bridge from the Nicaraguan government more than 50 years ago, so a celebration was definitely in order.

Lanphere summed up her feelings about the experience: "This trip was one of the best trips of my life. I had a great time and worked really hard. The best part of the trip was probably meeting all of the local people. They were so happy and always so nice. It really felt good to know that we helped so many people build what they had been wanting and needing for years. This trip was very enriching and I hope to do many more like it."

Martinez said, "Seeing the finished project, and it actually being something going to a good cause and something we know will be used for the next 10, 15, 20 years, that was my greatest reward. A project this big is hard, but if you stick with it, you learn a lot and it pays off in the end, especially when it's helping a community."

Previous international projects for EWB include both a bridge project and a well project in a small community in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. On a more local level, they are involved in the Anthony Community Project in Anthony, N.M., working with the Colonias Development Council.

The group is eager to return to Nicaragua - they are strongly leaning toward doing another bridge project in the Municipio de Condega. "We actually looked at a future bridge site already," Martinez said. "We did the survey on it, and we have an initial design, basically, and an initial span of the bridge. We're looking to possibly go back in December."

Six EWB members have completed NMSU's bridge inspection program in the Department of Civil Engineering, so there may be opportunities for them to do a formal inspection of the Hondura Azul bridge and others in the area in the future. "In fact, BTP is very interested in piggybacking on NMSU's bridge inspection program for highway bridges and extending it to pedestrian bridges, which could take our students to many countries," Stevens said. "Meetings between BTP management and NMSU bridge inspection personnel will be held in August."

EWB also intends to support the town's main sports activity. As in much of Nicaragua, baseball is very popular, but the Hondura Azul team finds itself using welder's gloves for mitts, balls that require frequent re-sewing, and hand-hewn bats made from local wood or leftover building products. Stevens said his department will be setting up a collection site for donated baseball equipment in the hall outside their office.

For more information about EWB-NMSU and this project, visit the website at http://web.nmsu.edu/~ewb/Home.html