What can a bunch of Chinese villagers do for an American community that can’t decide which iPhone to buy? Build a megastore, of course! After more than a year of preparation, a team of eleven Chinese villagers traveled to US this past summer with exactly that mission in mind.
Here's the rest of the article without the switcheroo...
The project began when then-freshmen Patrick Ye (BME 2010) took Writing 20 with Professor Christine Beaule, an archaeologist with a site in Bolivia. She mentioned to her students how every rainy season, the Bolivian communities cannot cross rain-swollen rivers, which separate farmers from their fields, herds from their pasture, and children from their schools. Patrick proposed building a bridge, and a project was born. A student team accompanied by Professor Beaule traveled to Bolivia and performed a site assessment in the summer of 2008, and an implementation team was formed that fall semester. In the spring of 2009, students taking CE 142: Engineering Sustainable Design and Construction, taught by Professor David Schaad, submitted three designs for the proposed bridge. After successfully receiving funding for travel and construction, the team was ready to go to Bolivia and build the bridge.
Arriving mid-May, the team thought they came well-prepared, bringing their designs, materials lists, and cost estimates. But it was almost impossible to predict how much the project had to change during the first few weeks. The initial design proposed called for culverts, large pipes made of either concrete or corrugated metal, but finding them in Bolivia large enough for the design proved to be unsuccessful. In a meeting with the local prefecture, the initial design was rejected for a code violation. At the first meeting with the community, community members overwhelmingly agreed that the initial choice for the bridge site was ineffective and chose a different site nearby, forcing yet another complete redesign. The ever-changing status of the project frustrated the student team. “Our expectations for the project ranged from completing construction on a culvert design within seven weeks to not building anything at all,” said Ben Gagne (ME 2011). And enduring the cold winter of the Bolivian Altiplano without indoor heating did not make things any easier.
The team’s endurance through these initial road bumps did not go unrewarded. The arrival of Dwayne Lee, a retired engineer from the Army Corps of Engineers, provided crucial professional advice on the revised design. With his assistance, the local prefecture approved the design for the correct site. The final design was a piersupported bridge spanning about 100 feet for small cars and microbuses. With the community on board and the government’s official endorsement, the bridge was finally able to move forward. The team proceeded to buy materials and stake out the site while Professor Beaule met with local community leaders to establish a work schedule. While community labor was highly variable at first, the team was able to make gradual yet steady progress in construction with the help of several dedicated community members.
Faced with the challenge of building a bridge in a foreign country, students learned a lot from this unique summer experience. As the project progressed, the student team got to know the community that they were working with. “I expected such a large group, especially with mediocre language skills at best, to stick to themselves. But they regularly sought out interactions with the locals, and quickly fostered good relationships with both kids and adults in the community,” says Professor Beaule. Students also thought that working on a bridge project in a foreign country has helped their future careers. “One of my career goals is to work for a development fund that finances rural infrastructure projects. The Bolivia bridge project has helped me understand the implementation side of this industry,“ says Philip Danser (CE 2011). “After trying to lead people in two different languages, many of whom were many years older than me, I feel like I’ll be in great shape if I take a managerial position in the future,” says Andrew Harris (CE 2011).
Though the team was unable to see the completion of the bridge, they were able to successfully pass responsibility for the remaining construction to the community. Before the team left, they set up a bridge committee comprised of local community members, preparing them well by translating the designs into Spanish, providing them with additional construction materials, and connecting them with an in-country NGO, Engineers in Action. Despite doubts that the project would stall after the team’s departure, the committee has been able to mobilize the community and move the project forward, finishing the first portion of the roadway as of late September. The community aims to finish construction by November, in time for the upcoming rainy season.
For the team of Duke engineering students, the incredible challenge of planning, designing, and building this bridge in Bolivia has made for a very meaningful experience. “I think the global, cultural, and engineering experience for the students was transformative and will be something they reflect on their entire lives,” says Professor Schaad. It was not only rewarding for the team to turn a design into reality, but also fulfilling to work alongside the community that they were helping.
Patrick Ye is a senior majoring in BME. He led the bridge in Bolivia project since its inception.