Cedar Rapids Gazette: UI Students Build Footbridge in Zambia

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

By Diane Heldt
Cedar Rapids Gazette

UI engineering students and the footbridge they helped build in Zambia.

IOWA CITY — Five University of Iowa engineering students spent three weeks in June helping build a 200-foot suspended cable footbridge in rural Zambia, replacing wooden railroad ties laid over mud that constituted the old bridge across the Maramba River.

It was a lesson in hands-on design and engineering and, in some cases, ingenuity, as the students completed the project at a site without electricity.

“We were mixing concrete on the ground, with shovels and buckets. You use what you have on hand,” Michael Schaefer, 24, said. “It’s good for your perspective.”

UI engineering graduate Michael Schaefer

Schaefer, who graduated in May with his master’s degree in civil engineering, was part of the UI group that made the trip to Zambia. It was through the volunteer charity Bridges to Prosperity, which works to empower poor, rural communities in Asia, Africa and South America through footbridge building.

Engineering students from the University of Zambia took the lead on this footbridge project. The director of operations for Bridges to Prosperity is Avery Bang, an Iowa City native and UI graduate. Schaefer and Bang are friends, and when the Zambia project needed a volunteer partner, Bang called upon her UI contacts. UI engineering students several years ago worked on a Bridges to Prosperity project.

For this footbridge, the UI students worked with five University of Zambia students, and workers and volunteers from local villages. Coralville engineering firm Shoemaker & Haaland was a sponsor for the UI students.

UI engineering students work on the footbridge with Zambian students and workers

The bridge design was developed by Bridges to Prosperity and involves two towers joined by steel cables, with wood decking as the walkway.

“You learn the amount of team work involved,” Ross Johnson, 21, UI senior in electrical engineering from North Liberty, said. “Nobody is idle waiting on something else. Everybody can be doing something constantly. It was much more difficult than I expected just to try to coordinate the whole project.”

The Linda Libuyu Suspended Pedestrian Footbridge connects the villages of Linda and Libuyu in Zambia. The area floods during the rainy season and would essentially leave Libuyu as an island. And the old railroad tie bridge would get muddy and slippery and was frequented by resident crocodiles who sometimes made crossing interesting for residents, Schaefer said.

More than 5,000 residents will be served by the new bridge, he said.

“It was just a really great experience,” he said.

The UI engineering students hope to do another project with Bridges to Prosperity next year, and perhaps make it a regular student outing.