University at Buffalo Students Design a Footbridge in Rural Kenya and Raise the Money to Build it

November 6, 2013

If a civil engineer designs it, it can be built.

That is the lesson senior students learned in their professional practice class and capstone project at the University at Buffalo this past year under the direction of their professor, Jerome S. O’Connor, P.E., F.ASCE.

In an attempt to have his students design something that would actually be built and also provide a benefit to the people in the community, O’Connor brought Kelly Rehm P.E., M.ASCE, a volunteer and board member from the Bridging the Gap Africa program, into their classroom to talk to them about the need to build pedestrian footbridges in rural Kenya. After discussing what they had just learned, O’Connor and the students decided that they would not only design a pedestrian footbridge across the Nzeveni River near the town of Sultan Hamud, Kenya, for their senior capstone project, but also raise the $20,000 needed to actually build it. Students enthusiastically embraced the project.

“The way we all felt about it was: we wanted to build something of value and we had the opportunity to do that in a place like Kenya,” says O’Connor, who is an adjunct professor of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and manager of the Bridge Engineering Program in the Department at the University at Buffalo (UB).

“We needed to have a project for [the student’s] capstone and the more we talked about it in class, the more sense it made for them to design a bridge for use in Kenya. I knew this was somewhat of an ambitious project [for the students] to take on but I liked the idea because it could be very rewarding experience in not only learning what goes into the entire process of designing a bridge but also how they could use their civil engineering skills to do something that can really make a difference in people’s lives wherever they are in the world.

“Right from the start, we tried to treat it as real project so we presented the students with the problem of local people having trouble crossing many of the rivers in Kenya because of the lack of bridges. In her PowerPoint presentation, Kelly shared with us the fact that over the past 10 years, about 6,000 men, women, and children have lost their lives attempting to cross rivers in Kenya.”

Designing a Sustainable Bridge in Kenya

Bridging the Gap Africa, a non-profit organization that has built 48 pedestrian footbridges in the western and southern regions of rural Kenya, agreed to partner with UB and serve as the students’ client for the design project. Breaking up into four teams, the 24 students went to work designing what would eventually be a suspension bridge supported by steel towers at each end.

“Being that this was a real project, the students first had to do an environmental impact assessment and then do some research on what the standards and regulations are in Kenya,” says O’Connor, who has been at UB for the past 11 years. “The students learned that you have to take the same ethical and professional approach to engineering projects in Kenya, just as you do here in the US, but not everything is the same and that made it more of a challenge.”

“The thing that comes to mind is workers’ safety in Kenya. We saw some pictures of workers in Africa dressed in shorts and flip-flops; definitely no steel-toe boots. So one of the issues the students addressed is how can you safely get the construction work done in that kind of an environment.”

O’Connor says a key element of the project was the student ability to design a sustainable bridge using local materials and labor. With the help of Bridging the Gap Africa, they were able to find stores of used cable strong enough to hold a footbridge from shipping yards at ports along the southeastern coast of Kenya.

“We wanted the structure to use only local material wherever possible because we don’t want to ship things from the US and build a US style bridge necessarily,” notes O’Connor, who holds both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “One of the goals of the project was also to design something that was repeatable, so using our design as a template, they could construct more of these bridges throughout the country.”

Again, with the help of Bridging the Gap Africa O’Connor says the students were able to locate all the material they needed to construct their suspension bridge within 100 miles of where it was going to be built. Also, a local experienced welder was found in the area to fabricate the two towers.

Final Design Package

At the beginning of the spring semester, each of the four teams presented an engineering proposal. By the end of the semester, the student design teams had developed their final designs, and then they produced one package by melding the best of each team’s work.

“We had regular progress reports and conducted web meetings with Bridging the Gap Africa,” recalled O’Connor, who is also president and CEO of Bridge Composites LLC, which develops fiber reinforced polymer composite decks for bridges. “At a couple of those meetings Nate Bloss, a Peace Corps volunteer assisting Bridging the Gap Africa, joined in from East Africa. Harmon Parker [the founder of Bridging the Gap Africa] also listened to the students’ PowerPoint presentations and answered some specific questions they had.

“And along the way we had other mentors and guest speakers come in and talk to the students about things like soils and foundations, or how to mitigate potential scour problems so the bridge did not wash out during heavy rains and things like that. So they were getting guidance not only from me as instructor in the class but also from other engineering professionals.”

As part of the design proposal the students had to develop a maintenance plan.

“We had to ensure that whatever we designed could survive with minimal maintenance, so you could not have any details that were prone to sudden failure where the bridge would collapse,” says O’Connor. “That is why one of the things that I was trying to teach them was to break the ‘big vision’ down into different parts so they can deal with one problem at a time, like the scour, the environmental, the cost, the fundraising, the logistics of doing it, the time, and how you are going to hand off a project to the local community.”

One of the other issues the students were able to learn about from designing this kind of project was estimating cost.

“I think we all felt that in the end we had a pretty nice design package,” says O’Connor. “But because the students did not have much detail about the cost of local materials and labor and the fact that this was taking place in a foreign county, coming up with a cost estimate was a bit of challenge. We did get some help from Nate, the Peace Corps volunteer who has first-hand experience building bridges in Africa, but what the students learned is that sometimes it comes down to negotiation; if you find the right person, you can get the best price.”

Getting the Bridge Built

While all of the students involved in the project graduated in the spring, many are still active in helping raising the $20,000 needed to build the footbridge. Part of the monies raised will help pay for one of the students to go to Kenya to supervise the construction. O’Connor was able to arrange a special account through the University at Buffalo Foundation so people could to make a tax deductible donation to the project. Organizations such as the Association of Bridge Construction and Design of Western NY have contributed, and several of the students attending the Seventh National Seismic Conference on Bridges in Oakland, California, organized a raffle.

“There was a lot of effort in designing this bridge but the reward is commensurate with the effort,” says O’Connor. “I think the students found this, too; as the semester wore on you could see them really getting excited about it and could see on the horizon this bridge being built.”

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