by Yaffi Spodek | Sunday, Nov 24, 2019

A hands-on experience is the best way to learn, and five undergraduates from the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science definitely gained some practical skills while spending a memorable week building a bridge in Eswatini, a developing country that is one of the smallest in the region, bordered by South Africa and Mozambique.

The structural engineering students, who named themselves Owls-in-Action, partnered with the non-profit group Engineers-in-Action (EIA) to design a pedestrian suspension foot bridge in a remote area of Eswatini, as part of their two-semester senior capstone design course.

EIA’s Bridge Program has worked with hundreds of students from 32 universities to build footbridges in underserved communities in 11 countries, connecting approximately 150,000 previously isolated people to essential resources such as education, healthcare, and markets, to help support development of sustainable systems. EIA provided the steel cabling and other necessary materials to construct the bridge.

During the capstone course, students are divided into teams and tasked with addressing real-world problems through advanced computer science and engineering projects. In the fall semester, they designed the project with the help of bridge engineers in Denver and on faculty, and in the second semester they built the bridge. The foot bridge, which is about 300 feet long, helps residents cross over fast-moving impassable rivers, enabling children to travel to school and improving the local economy and infrastructure.

In preparation for the trip, the group studied with a design engineer to learn about construction and safety, prepare spreadsheets and drawings, and design the bridge. Masons in Eswatini started building the bridge using stone and concrete, and the plans provided by the students.

In Eswatini, the students worked with local masons to build a stone concrete bridge with steel cables. Accompanied by two FAU alumni who work as structural engineers, the students helped complete the bridge by constructing the walkways using steel cabling, which is not readily available in Eswatini. Some of their daily tasks included excavating foundations, mixing and pouring concrete, laying bricks, and cutting cable.

“The Eswatini project was another chapter in our award-winning senior design class. Through these kinds of projects, we are able to give our students valuable firsthand experience, while enabling them to learn new skills and volunteer their time and expertise to give back to others,” explained Frederick Bloetscher, PhD, PE, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and Community Outreach and a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering, who teaches the class. “In just two weeks, the students planned to finish building the bridge, which will greatly enhance the quality of life for local residents.”

While COVID-19 cut their trip short, the students were able to complete most of the structure and gain valuable experience professionally and socially with the local residents in Eswatini.

“It is a trip that will stay with us forever,” said student Alexander Hintze, the project manager for the team.