Published July 11, 2013
A senior class project for Jerome O’Connor’s engineering students is counting for much more than a final grade; it’s giving them real-world experience and a chance to help people in need.
O’Connor, a UB structural and earthquake engineer, asked his students to design a footbridge across one of the many ravines in rural southeast Kenya.
During the rainy season, these ravines become impassible and prevent access to education, economic development and health care. The ravines have contributed to more than 6,000 deaths in the past 10 years, according to Bridging the Gap Africa, a nonprofit that has built 48 pedestrian footbridges in Kenya.
UB partnered with the organization to help improve people’s lives while giving students some practical experience.
“I decided if the students were going to go through all the trouble to design something, it may as well be something that will actually be built and provide a benefit to people,” says O’Connor, adjunct professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
After conducting an environmental impact assessment, the 24 students—working in teams of six—designed a “suspended” or hanging bridge made of donated steel cables that are supported by steel towers.
An experienced welder in Kenya will fabricate the towers and most of the bridge materials will be sourced from within 100 miles of where it will be built. A typical bridge spans 130 to 200 feet and has a 3.2-foot-wide walkway made of eucalyptus wood.
The students are raising money to buy materials needed for the bridge, which will cost about $20,000. Additional funds are needed to pay for travel expenses for the students who will go to Africa to help build their design.
O’Connor, who also manages UB’s bridge engineering program and works for MCEER, the university’s earthquake and extreme events research center, came up with the idea to build a bridge after speaking with Kelly Rehm, a member of the board of directors for Bridging the Gap Africa, at a meeting of bridge engineers.
O’Connor inquired how UB could support the group’s efforts, and the conversation led to the formation of O’Connor’s curriculum. He also offered his students the option to attend the seventh National Seismic Conference on Bridges (7NSC) to assist him in setting up and running the conference, which was held in Oakland, Calif.
“I felt this was both an enriching and rewarding experience,” says Garrett Miller, a student who helped design the bridge.
“I gained priceless information relative to the up-and-coming research, technologies and governmental policies that will be used in the future of civil engineering,” says Miller, who received a BS in civil engineering in May and will return to UB this fall to pursue a master’s degree.
Although the upcoming task is daunting, the students feel they already have achieved a significant victory through their teamwork.
“When practicing engineering, we need to capitalize on everyone’s strengths in order to excel as a team,” O’Connor explains. “Different personalities, cultural perspectives and technical skills help the team arrive at a better solution than any one person would be capable of.”
Anyone wishing to donate money to support the students’ efforts, can visit the Giving to UB website.