Engineering Students' Project Aids Mexican School

Thursday, October 2, 2008

By Mike McDonald - The Daily Iowan

At the beginning of the semester, UI Associate Research Scientist Craig Just showed his class a slide of 25 indigenous children standing in front of their rustic school in Xicotepec, Mexico.

"Here are your clients," he told his students. "Here they are."

Just, on the civil and environmental engineering faculty, teaches Design for the Developing World, a course that will enable students to reach far beyond the boundaries of Iowa City.

Throughout the semester, more than 20 UI students - broken into five teams - will learn about basic engineering practices and collaborate on a plan to make a children's school more sustainable.

Sarah Arnberger, a civil-engineering major, recalled the day she saw the picture, and she hopes her work in the course will have an effect.

"[The photo] was powerful and made me love the class even more," the junior said. "It was great knowing that I was doing something worth while."

The UI's involvement in Xicotepec began in 2003, when a team of UI students and faculty traveled to the Mexican school to perform a weeklong assessment. The university has continued to work closely with the community, and a group of Just's students will travel to the indigenous village during the 2009 spring break to install the class's best design plan.

The infrastructure that will be installed in the school includes rainwater harvesting, renewable energy, and drinking-water systems.

In order to develop the most appropriate design for the village, a team will spend a week with Xicotepec leaders - starting Oct. 16 - to survey the community's desires and capabilities and provide them with an initial "10 percent design."

Despite being an engineering-centered course, Just said students from other majors are equally as important.

"Diversity is key to good design," he said, noting that students from different majors - for example, international studies or economics - give different perspectives to the technically trained engineers.

Ryan Drysdal, an international-studies major, is one example.

"I've learned a lot about engineering from the course, and hopefully, the other students can learn about international studies," the junior said.

Just has taught the course for three years, but this is the first year he has embedded the Xicotepec project in his fall semester plans - a move he hopes will enhance progress of the project.

"We are ramping up the scope of the project," Just said. "The projects we are dreaming of now are much larger scale."

At present, the class's five teams are designing basic sand-water filters. Although small in scale, the teams realize the large effect their project can have.

"Simple is better," Drysdal said as he packed wet sand into a two-liter pop bottle. "You have to be able to use basic resources [the village] has."

Just has been to Xicotepec seven times and taken more than 40 students since 2003. He will offer a three-week summer course in order to complete the infrastructure construction.