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College of Engineering and Computer Science Builds Bridges in Africa

FAU civil engineering students pose with community members in Eswatini during Bridge Program construction

Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science is a leader in building bridges, both literally and figuratively.

Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science is a leader in building bridges, both literally and figuratively. Thanks to a collaboration with Engineers in Action (EIA) that began in 2020 with the organization’s Bridge Program, FAU has become just one of a few schools to bridge the gap between its civil engineering students and other countries to provide footbridges to rural communities previously isolated from commercial centers.  

Most recently, seven current civil engineering students and alumni from the College, including two past bridge team captains, traveled to Mkhulamini, Eswatini in Africa to build a footbridge that will provide access for the Mkhulamini community to the rest of the Manzini region. The bridge projects also were completed as part of the College’s senior design class.

The Emlaleni Mabovini footbridge will facilitate the movement of more than 3,700 individuals, connecting them with schools, health care clinics, grocery stores and churches, as well as farmland and residential homesteads. It also will allow a community that is 70 percent reliant on subsistence agriculture to travel to sell or trade their products, such as maize, spinach, and various livestock – a huge boost to its local economy.

The mission of EIA is to support the development of sustainable systems and infrastructure with underserved communities, local expertise and global partners. The organization provides opportunities for students from more than 40 universities worldwide to participate in projects that not only connect underserved communities to essential services, but also offer students critical hands-on experience and leadership skill development.

Frederick Bloetscher, Ph.D., associate dean for undergraduate studies and community outreach in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering at FAU within the College, oversaw the senior capstone design class.

“We had a former student contact us about this EIA opportunity [and] it seemed like a good fit for what we are trying to accomplish in the class. The opportunity to travel adds to the experience by allowing the students to see their design become a real project,” he said. “We are relatively new to this, but we have built more bridges than some of these bigger schools. Our plan is to continue to build bridges as long as we have interested students and a community willing to help us raise the funds to go.”

FAU currently is among 24 schools in the United States, including Duke, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Penn State, Virginia Tech and McGill University, to design and construct bridges. Students cannot travel to any of the sites beforehand, and some situations may be different on the ground than what is expected, posing challenges but also teaching how to be adaptive to things that are uncontrollable.

“Adaptability is important. For example, changes to the design were needed this year because the soils were not as indicated by the people on site,” Bloetscher said. “That necessitated changing the location of the pylons and the length of the bridge while under construction. The lack of power, Wi-Fi and running water added to the challenge.”

Emmanuel Francois, a senior majoring in civil engineering and leader of the team since June 2022, led the Eswatini project as its manager, overseeing the team building and design phase to the implementation phase, which took place over a three-week span in March at the African country.

“It was never an option for this project not to happen,” said Francois, when considering the challenges he worked through with his fellow students. But those challenges, he said, brought him to the most rewarding part, which is seeing how the whole community benefits from this bridge they built together.

Alex Hintze and Carolina Velez are alumni who have participated in the Bridge Program since the beginning. Hintze, who graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, has found the “attitude of gratitude and joy” he has felt from the local community to be both humbling and reviving. Getting in the trenches and implementing a project – as opposed to simply designing and planning it – has proven fruitful for Hintze, as he accepted a full-time position with EIA’s Action Bridge Program in Eswatini in the fall.  

Velez, who graduated from FAU in December with a master’s degree in civil engineering and is now a design engineer for Structures International, participated in the project during the 2019-20 year. Due to COVID, the team was unable to travel – but Velez was able to oversee the bridge efforts from South Florida. Fast forward to this year, when she finally made the trip overseas to help build the bridge her team initially designed.

The team also lived with members of the local community in Mkhulamini for several weeks, so a deep cultural exchange between the students and the Eswatini people was impactful. They soon learned that the food and living conditions were not like home, with jungle safety and construction safety and techniques becoming part of their daily routine, as was working without tools commonly found in the U.S. All of this helped the students appreciate the opportunities at home.

“We had to walk around the river to find rocks, which coming from a place where everything is readily available, was an experience,” she said, noting that one day she even randomly came upon a wild bull elephant. “It was really cool.”  

For more information on EIA’s Bridge Program, visit here.