Unexpected challenges are a part of life – and almost guaranteed on the job. It’s a lesson that’s hard to teach in a classroom, but one that MSOE students were able to learn in the field by solving real life problems in real time on an Engineers Without Borders-USA bridge building project to Guatemala.

Students on completed bridge.

Students on completed bridge.

A national organization with both professional and student chapters, EWB-USA empowers communities to meet their most basic human needs by addressing water supply, sanitation, energy, agriculture, civil works and structural challenges. Communities determine their need and then partner with EWB-USA to find appropriate solutions.

Ten students representing five majors participated in the most recent trip, which took place Feb. 22 – March 6 in the community of El Temal, Guatemala.

Over the past 11 years, the EWB-MSOE chapter led by co-advisors Drs. Doug Stahl and Todd Davis has completed ten projects in Guatemala. By partnering with EWB-USA’s Wisconsin Professional Chapter and committed Milwaukee-area engineers who serve as mentors to the students, EWB-MSOE has been able to do complex structural projects, including a vehicular bridge at Chumisa that was one of EWB-USA’s Premier Projects for 2016.

Joined by Davis and three professional mentors, on this project students set out to design and build a cable suspended bridge that would be passable by tuk-tuks –three-wheeled taxis that are commonly used for transportation but unable to travel long distances. Because travel by other means is costly and time prohibitive, a bridge that accommodated tuk-tuks would make medical care, markets and schools more accessible.

MSOE senior civil engineering major Logan Bertling, who served as project manager for the El Temal project, anticipated that there would be challenges. “Normally this style of bridge can only accommodate pedestrians, livestock and motorcycles,” Bertling said. “We knew it would require many modifications.”

This is the first cable-suspended bridge designed specifically for tuk-tuk travel and has several unique design features. The bridge is 50 percent wider than a typical pedestrian bridge and, in order to reduce the slope for tuk-tuks, the cables are tighter than usual; a concrete and stone structure weighing 200,000 pounds anchors the cables at each end of the bridge.

Students had their first look at the site in early 2016 with an engineer from EWB-USA’s Wisconsin Professional Chapter. At that time, they conducted two field assessment trips to survey the river crossing and perform soil tests. During the Spring Quarter, they conducted an analysis that included preliminary engineering and cost estimates to determine the appropriate bridge type. They submitted their report to EWB-USA headquarters for approval. Over the summer and into the fall, students split into teams to address the various portions of the project – cable design, wood deck design, stone masonry tower design, concrete anchor design, drafting and safety. After completing the bridge’s structural design, students calculated final cost estimates. After the reports were approved by the EWB-USA, students planned the construction process and coordinated with their in-country foreman to order materials and arrange site excavation.

When students arrived on the job site in El Temal they quickly learned they’d need to make some adjustments. The excavation and soil conditions were different than planned, which required the students to redesign portions of the bridge while on site within the constraints of schedule and materials purchased. “The majority of time we were on site we were working behind schedule and there was worry amongst the group that we may not be able to complete the bridge before flying back home,” Bertling said.

The group had known that construction complications would mean leaving the community and foreman to complete the project, but pushed hard to make up lost time. “With the community’s hard work and persistence we worked a few long days and adjusted the order of our tasks to optimize the work conditions,” said senior architectural engineering major Jacob Haen, who served as cable lead on the project.

Sophomore mechanical engineering major Maia Heineck, who was the health and safety officer on the trip as well as the concrete lead, recalled working late into the night on one occasion. “We had to take out our phones and use them as flashlights to check the consistency of the concrete,” she said. “Finishing that night allowed us to stay on schedule.”

Working in partnership with the community—about 50 area residents joined students on the job site each day—the bridge was ultimately completed on time. “The most memorable part of the trip was seeing the tuk-tuk cross the bridge with the whole community there watching,” Heineck said. “The community was excited; they had a new bridge that will connect them to other towns. I felt accomplished.”

The value of EWB trips to students across study areas is significant, providing students with opportunities to not only grow their technical skills, but also in leadership and global awareness, explained advisor Davis. Students like Bertling appreciated the well-rounded educational experience.

“We were exposed to all aspects of the life cycle of the project,” Bertling said. “I learned there is much more beyond performing calculations that goes into being an engineer and making a project successful.”

Highlights of the trip were captured on video by senior technical communication major Maya George. George had long wanted to participate in EWB, but believed because she was not an engineering major she was not eligible. “In reality students from all areas of study are encouraged to participate in the organization,” she said.

After a week in El Temal, George had more than 40 GBs of video footage. “I tried to capture anything and everything when I wasn’t helping with the actual construction,” she said. “The hardest was being afraid of missing something. It’s not as if I could just fly back to El Temal and film another construction project if I needed different footage.”

George’s video (below) will be used for promotional and educational purposes. “Hopefully it will increase EWB membership and donations so that they can continue to do the good work they have done for so long.”


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