Engineering students prep for African outreach trip

A group of engineering students are squeezing in a little work during their summer break to complete a project assessment trip in Africa.

Half a dozen members of the Penn State Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter will head to a remote village in Sierra Leone on July 17 for a 10-day visit.

According to John Lamancusa, the group's adviser and professor of mechanical engineering, the EWB students' initial idea is to design and construct a sanitary facility for a school. ''Currently, the kids do their business in the bushes.

But before building anything, the students must go to the village, located approximately 10 miles outside of the country's capital of Freetown, to assess the school's and village's needs.

''The Third World has been littered with good projects by NGOs [non-governmental organizations], but the local people didn't want them, didn't need them and they're now broken down and aren't maintained,'' Lamancusa stated.

EWB's president, Meghan Fisher, said, ''We're going to look at the community itself to see if the priority need is, in fact, a latrine.''

The students' tasks include investigating the school, testing the soil and surrounding elements and scouting for local building materials.

''What are the local construction resources?'' Lamancusa asked. ''Some of the things we take for granted here — can we buy bricks or concrete blocks?''

The thought had also occurred to Fisher. ''We might have to ship the materials in from the U.S. if the materials aren't there.''

Planning for the assessment trip took months, the mechanical engineering sophomore recalled. ''Everything has to go through the national organization of EWB. To go on these trips, there's a really thorough process you have to do. It covers every scenario if anything goes wrong. It's making sure we know what we're doing. We're not playing games.''

The national EWB organization provided the students with a list of approximately 25 projects to choose from. Fisher said the team was considering projects in South America because it was thought to be easier to get to logistically.

Though the team wasn't assigned a South American project, Fisher said members are still anxious to get started. ''We really want to improve the lives of children who don't have the way and means to get an education like we did.''

In addition to Lamancusa, the six Penn State EWB students will be accompanied by Rich Kerchner, a representative from engineering consulting firm Gannett Fleming. Kerchner is helping to advise the students.

After the assessment trip, the students will begin planning and building when they return to campus in the fall. The hope, Fisher said, is to make a follow-up trip next year around spring break or summer to deliver and install their project.

The team's exploits can be followed on their blog at http://ewb-psu.blogspot.com.

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Last Updated July 27, 2010