Students build bridges and brighter futures for Bolivian children

Children from the community of Chavarrias, Bolivia will now be able to attend school during the rainy season, thanks to a group of U of A engineering students.

Kyla Stocks - 28 June 2018

Children from the community of Chavarrias, Bolivia will now be able to attend school during the rainy season, thanks to a group of University of Alberta engineering students.

In May 2018, eight students built a 39-metre footbridge in the small community as part of a project through the U of A chapter of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P).

This bridge was not only the largest offered by Bridges to Prosperity, but was constructed in a record 26 days.

U of A B2P chapter co-founder Mabel Smith, a fourth-year Civil Engineering Co-op student, and former B2P chapter president Mitchell Trollip (Mechanical '18) say that seeing the river and environment first hand really demonstrated the need for a bridge.

"The school was on one side of the river and farmland on the other. Children were usually being held back from school during rainy season, they wanted this bridge so children could go to school," explains Smith. "The river gets so high and fast during rainy season it's nearly impossible for a grown adult to cross safely on foot, let alone a child. So children just miss school because they physically can't get there."

Bridges do so much more than connect one place to another - they instill a sense of togetherness and unity. And much like Edmonton's High Level Bridge, they spur economic growth by taking a previously small community and expanding its borders.

"Seeing the river and the rain and understanding how little these people had and this was their only way to get to schools or hospitals or market, really showed how much this would benefit the community," adds Trollip.

Trollip explains that B2P is unique because it's not just giving a bridge to community - it's a bridge members of the community helped build, so they feel a sense of ownership for it. While B2P conducts yearly inspections on bridges, they leave the maintenance to the community.

"Seeing the joy the locals had when we finished the bridge was incredible. We had a ceremony and a plaque and the community members made speeches and danced and said how they were grateful for our help."

During the design phase, the engineering students worked out the calculations and created drawings of the bridge using AutoCAD software.

Along with their engineering knowledge, students had access to other resources to ensure a successful bridge build. B2P provides students with a bridge-builders manual that explains the necessary calculations. Two members of the team did a "tag along" with another team's build to get hands-on experience. Once on site, an engineer or EIT was always present to help the students and oversee the build.

Despite all of the preparation the students put into the planning, sometimes the best laid plans go awry.

"The build site got switched at last minute, and we needed to build a bigger bridge than expected but within the same amount of time," explains Trollip. "The new one was 4.5 meters high on each side, considerably bigger than last year's bridge. We did not expect to be able to finish it in only one month. We spent every single day working, and we were able to finish the bridge in 26 days - which is the fastest bridge of that size ever built with B2P."

Smith says that although building the bridge was hard work, it was worth it to combine her engineering knowledge and passion for humanitarian pursuits. "Construction was hard work, moving rocks, mixing concrete, carrying buckets, bending rebar. It was physically demanding work. But it all went smoothly."

She is now interested in working with B2P full time in a bridge corps fellowship where she will help with site assessments and surveys and assist with bridge builds during the summers.

"I'm passionate about humanitarian and environmental applications of engineering so I'd like to do both of those in my career - this includes renewable energy and sustainable engineering. Another important part of this group is the leadership and global consciousness skills that you learn being a part of it."

As project manager and the only fluent Spanish-speaker on the team, Trollip took on a lot of leadership responsibility. "My time on site was spent communicating with the local masons, organizing daily work plans and deadlines, and ensuring we had materials and community members helping on site."

He encourages all engineering student to get involved in a project like this.

"The experience I gained working with the student group was just as valuable as the technical skills learned in classes," he says. "I wouldn't have been able to get the management or leadership skills anywhere else than this project. This project is everything that the faculty values, in giving back to community and creating leaders."

While a portion of the bridge is paid for by the community, the rest of the funds come from fundraising and sponsorships. Students raised nearly $40,000 for this year's build thanks to crowdfunding and generous corporate sponsors, as well as donations from the department of civil engineering and Faculty of Engineering.

Trollip says, "We were very fortunate that we had wonderful sponsors who donated money and exceeded our fundraising goal. Next year we are doing another bridge and we already have a big head start."