April 26, 2017 — More than 70 MSOE students gained hands-on experience in their areas of study on a multi-project service trip to Nicaragua. The trip was organized through Global Brigades, a non-governmental organization that empowers under-resourced communities to meet their health and economic goals with help from student volunteers, industry partners and local residents.
Global Brigades-MSOE, the university’s student chapter, has sent teams to locations in Central America for the past four years. Each team, or brigade, has worked collaboratively with community members to support medical, water and infrastructure projects. On this most recent trip, Feb. 26 through March 4, MSOE introduced the Public Health Brigade – a team focused on empowering rural communities to prevent common illnesses through in-home infrastructural development, community leader training and health education.
“As part of the strategic plan for Global Brigades-MSOE, we want to add new brigades based on student interest,” said Dr. Patrick J. Jung, lead faculty advisor and Public Health Brigade advisor. “Next year, we plan on adding a Business Brigade.”
Also on this trip were the Water and Medical Brigades. The Water Brigade works with local engineers and technicians to construct water systems custom designed for rural communities. Team members assist in digging trenches, connecting pipes, installing in-home water faucets and providing education to improve family health. The Medical Brigade provides access to health services in rural communities alongside doctors, staff and local leaders. In addition to the labor they provide, students also make program contributions that allow for the purchase of construction materials that are prohibitively expensive for residents of these countries. Members of each brigade spend three days working on their own projects, then take the fourth day to participate in the project of a different brigade – allowing students to broaden their experience.
“The value of Global Brigades is that students see how the majority of people in the world actually live,” Jung said. “They also see that having degrees in nursing and engineering can be valuable to people in developing countries.”
The Medical Brigade is the first group to go into a community. They provide basic health checkups and medications for common problems such as parasites, high blood pressure and skin conditions. They also provide basic dental care and cavity prevention. The Medical Brigade—which included 41 students, four faculty and Dr. Bernard Cohen, MSOE Regent—worked in Salmeron La Garnacha, a community of about 900 located in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua.
“We spent three days hosting a free medical and dental care clinic for members of the community,” said senior Rachel DiGrazia, a biomedical engineering major. “Some people walked three hours with their families to receive much needed medications, consultations and dental work for free.”
Patients ranged in age from one week to 80 years old. Students provided support and assistance to the Nicaraguan medical professionals leading the exams. Dentists filled cavities and extracted infected teeth while doctors assessed injuries, diagnosed illnesses and treated symptoms.
“The most important thing to realize about Global Brigades is that the point is to help communities become self-sustaining,” DiGrazia said. “We are just a small part of the bigger goal.”
Not far behind the Medical Brigade is the Water Brigade. The Water Brigade builds freshwater systems to provide clean drinking water; this ensures that the problems solved by the Medical Brigade—particularly parasitic infections—are unlikely to reoccur. The MSOE Water Brigade, which consisted of 20 students and one faculty member, worked on a project providing clean water to five villages with a total population of about 1,500.
“The work consisted of filling in trenches with dirt and rock,” said junior Marcus Welsh, a mechanical engineering major. It was the last step in the process; previous brigades had dug the trenches and laid the pipe. “Seeing the entire water system was empowering. Not only was it impressive to see the amount of work that went into it, but we could see that our work eventually leads to something of scale that will empower the communities it serves.”
Public Health Brigade
Once a community has fresh water, the Public Health Brigade steps in to build sanitary stations for homes. These include a flush toilet, a septic tank, a shower and a wash basin. Students poured concrete to replace existing dirt floors, which are also a source of parasitic infections. The Public Health Brigade, which included 10 students and one faculty member, worked in Encuentros de San Gabriel, a village of about 600 people in the Jinotega region.
“The structures were made mainly from cinder blocks, however, we also had to mix cement on-site which was an exhausting process,” said Welsh.
After the fifth day of the trip, students made a presentation about topics relating to health and water, which included safe waste disposal systems and preventing water contamination.
“The most memorable part of the trip was meeting the community and the families we worked with,” said sophomore Samantha Felhofer, a mechanical engineering major. “Getting to know the situation that the families are in and their daily tasks was very eye opening.”
Sophomore Desarae Echevarria, a mechanical engineering major, said she was able to make real-world connections to a class she recently took in fluid mechanics. She was also able to practice her Spanish speaking skills. The experience also made her reevaluate her future. “The trip made me reconsider where I want to work and who I want to work for because Global Brigades is something I love to do.”
For more information on a future Global Brigades trip, contact Dr. Patrick Jung, Global Brigades advisor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milwaukee School of Engineering is an independent, non-profit university with about 2,900 students. MSOE offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, business and nursing. The university has a national academic reputation; longstanding ties to business and industry; dedicated professors with real-world experience; and a 97 percent placement rate.