on campus

Engineering with Purpose

UB students help Bridging the Gap Africa save lives in Kenya

 Photo: Bridging the Gap Africa  

By Michael Flatt

“Bridges link people with economic, educational and health care opportunities.”
Wil Nagengast, Student, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

It’s often said that engineering is about problem-solving. While some of the problems engineers work to solve are what could be called inconveniences—a laptop that’s heavier than consumers want; a stretch of road that’s prone to potholes—there are others that affect people’s lives in dramatic ways.

A group of UB engineering students is partnering with a nonprofit called Bridging the Gap Africa to solve a problem of the latter kind. Founded in 2003 by a former missionary and master mason named Harmon Parker, the organization builds footbridges in rural Kenyan villages, which are often many miles from the nearest crossing. Every year in Kenya, hundreds of people die attempting to traverse rivers in search of health care or education, or to see a sick family member. Parker was named a CNN Hero in 2010 for his bridge-building efforts.

The student group—UB Bridging the Gap Africa Partners, which is overseen by Jerome O’Connor of the UB Institute of Bridge Engineering—assists Bridging the Gap Africa with technical advising and fundraising, while giving the students the opportunity to engage with real engineering projects. Wil Nagengast, a civil engineering major, says he decided to take a leadership role with the group after watching Parker’s TED talk. “Civil engineering is one of the most powerful tools to combat cycles of poverty,” Nagengast says. “Bridges link people with economic, educational and health care opportunities.”

Nagengast is among a group of several students working on a senior capstone project to develop a bridge design that could be produced in the States, shipped to a village in Kenya and then assembled there, with minimal labor and electricity. Other projects undertaken by students in the group include creating a quality-assurance program and producing designs that will protect bridge foundations from scour, the erosion caused by swift-moving water at the feet of the bridges.

At a public lecture on campus in February, engineering students got to hear more about Bridging the Gap’s work from Chris and Beth Leibfried, volunteers who helped build the organization’s first suspension bridge, called the Peace Bridge, in Kitale, Kenya. Completed in April, the new bridge used locally sourced materials to keep costs low, employed local workers and, with O’Connor as lead designer, represented a shift in Bridging the Gap’s work toward more sophisticated engineering.

The Leibfrieds also discussed what it was like to live and work in Kenya, and the drastic cultural differences that make this work so important. “Most Kenyans who live out in the countryside can’t swim,” Beth Leibfried pointed out. “We take it for granted.”