When Students Truly Become Engineers

Published: July 6, 2017 By

I recently returned from spending two weeks on-site with our Bridges to Prosperity team in Bolivia. As a faculty member in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering for nearly 20 years, I’ve talked to many students about how their experiences with groups like Bridges to Prosperity and Engineers Without Borders affected them. But until now, I had never experienced it first-hand.

Seeing these students go from the classroom to mature engineers in the field was astounding. These are men and women, as young as 18 or 19, who are truly leading an engineering and construction project from start to finish. They often must teach people 40-50 years their senior new ways of building on the construction site. Designing and constructing a cable-suspended pedestrian bridge may not be the most overwhelming engineering feat, but these students are learning about everything from land issues, stakeholder involvement, engineering design, quality control, construction and safety – all while working in a multinational organization.

This particular team faced additional challenges in the beginning. After they’d started excavations at their original build site, the landowner decided he didn’t want it there. Within two weeks, the team found a brand new bridge site and were off and running. The new location may have an even larger impact on the community as there were two fatalities on the site during the rainy season last year. Their resilience and ability to function as a team was phenomenal, and it was incredible to see the amount of work they accomplished.

Read on for the Bolivia team’s latest dispatch, as well as an update from our Swaziland team!

Two crew members flash a thumbs-up while helping to unload a truck at the Bolivia worksite.

Chosco, Bolivia – June 17

We have been working long hours alongside our new Bolivian friends to complete the foundation and first tier of our bridge. We have had all hands on deck for mixing concrete, transporting materials and placing stone with our mason. We were also happy to welcome Professor Keith Molenaar to our site as he has been a huge help on site with his work and in the kitchen with his Hershey chocolate! As the walls grow higher, so does our excitement to see the bridge coming together piece by piece. For the remaining week we have in Chosco, we will finish the right side tiers along with the left side foundation.

Our average day starts promptly at 6:40 a.m. when we prepare for breakfast. By 8 a.m. we are on the way to the job site which is near our temporary home. We meet there with the Bolivians and have our morning construction and safety meeting. Then the work begins! With either Bolivian or American music playing in the background we go about our duties for the day with sweat running down our hard hats and smiles on our faces. The moment we all look forward to is the morning descansito where we take 15-20 minutes to rest, re-hydrate, and chat. Then it is back to work until almuerzo! We take an hour and a half for lunch and a small siesta. Our afternoon schedule mirrors the morning schedule until the sun sets around 4:30pm behind a nearby mountain. We work until 5:30pm and our work day is over.

On weekends the team rests and explores the beauties of Chosco! Some of the favorite team activities are hiking, yoga and reading on our beautiful deck. Every day we are blow away by the beauty of our community, and every night the stars and Milky Way take our breath away. Being able to help such a loving and giving community warms our hearts even when our sleeping bags can't!


Crew members unload rocks from a trailer at the Swaziland bridge site.

Edlangeni, Swaziland, Southern Africa – July 5

We have finished building the towers on top of our tiers, which will support the handrail cables of our bridge. We have also built rebar anchor cages which the cables will wrap around. We will place these cages in our anchor pits (large holes in the ground) and pour concrete around them to create gravity anchors (large blocks of concrete that keep the cables secured in the ground).

Building this footbridge comes with daily struggles and challenges to overcome, with topics ranging from material collection to community communication. Over the past week, our hurdle has been the task of getting cables into the country. We bought our cables from a company in South Africa and have had to jump through many hoops to get them transported across the border. Our project manager, Sam Sweet, was in Mbabane (the capital of Swaziland) all week working with a transport company and contractors to get the cables on site. Today they finally arrived and we were so excited to finally see them in person! Every worker helped measure out five pieces of 115 meters that we will use for our bridge. 

We also have a slight design change to our bridge due to a large boulder that we encountered while excavating the anchor pit on one side of the bridge. The boulder is in the location that we were going to put our anchor, so we will have to move it higher and use more rock to keep the anchor in place. Throughout the past month, everyone on our team has learned a lot about dealing with logistical challenges of building a footbridge in a rural community! Nevertheless, whether it's a boulder or cable transportation that challenges us, we are persevering to finish the bridge!

Keith Molenaar is the associate dean for research for CU Engineering and has been a faculty member in civil, environmental and architectural engineering since 1999.