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Projects for Underserved Communities: Not Your Typical Summer Vacation

projects for under-served communities

28 November 2012

WHEN SUMMER ROLLS AROUND, most students take on a job or an internship. But for some students in the Cockrell School of Engineering and the School of Social Work, summer means the opportunity to help improve the lives of others across the world.

Projects for Underserved Communities is an interdisciplinary program that teaches engineering and social work students how to work together and practically apply their skills to help develop impoverished communities abroad. Students complete two semesters of preparatory coursework before embarking on a their summer learning based project . Past student-led project teams have enhanced access to basic commodities such as water or fuel for residents in remote villages in Ghana or Peru.

PUC is the product of Professors Janet Ellzey and Jim O’Connor, who founded the program in 2009 after more and more students expressed the desire to work on developmental projects abroad. A professor of mechanical engineering and Vice Provost of International Programs, Ellzey has long believed that students need to learn how to work with others in different fields in order to leave a lasting, positive impact on the world, while broadening their perspectives in the global workplace.

“It’s one of the most powerful aspects of PUC,” said Ellzey. “It’s a very natural collaboration with the social work students and the engineering students. They have complementary skill sets.”

ghana digging

The marriage between social work and engineering is crucial to maximizing the success of the projects, says Laurie Young, who oversees logistics and operations for PUC in addition to helping launch the program.

“The social work students provide their skills in communication in order to bridge the gap between them and the host community,” she said. “The engineering students provide their technical skills to design the projects. The students work together to implement the projects.”

Students begin the projects by enrolling in a planning and preparatory course with civil engineering professor Jim O’Connor during the fall semester. Students pitch project ideas, then spend the semester evaluating the feasibility, cost, and sustainability of each idea. Currently, students are looking at implementing new projects in Mozambique, Guatemala, Mongolia, Ghana and Papua New Guinea.

“The students build up a body of knowledge about the location. They define who the client will be and the problem to be addressed ,” O’Connor said.

After students decide on a project and location, they spend the second semester working out the prototype. With the help of corporate sponsors, students have access to a wide variety of resources – however, everything they make in the United States might not translate overseas. The students, O’Connor says, have to be flexible and resourceful to accommodate the environments they go to in the summer.

During the summer of 2012, students traveled to a small village in the rural Patriensa district in Ghana. Their project: to implement a more efficient cooking stove that relies on sawdust for fuel

It sounds simple enough. But the impact of this project cannot be understated: Ghanaians who do not own land typically have to purchase their own wood or charcoal to use as cooking fuel. For those living in poverty, such a basic commodity can be costly. But due to the nation’s sizable logging industry, sawdust is cheap and abundant. Reusing the sawdust as fuel also helps to limit the effects of deforestation.

hook em horns

Clint Hanna, a mechanical engineering major, participated in the sawdust stove project. He was taken aback by how appreciative the local community was for the convenience of this new family resource.

“Every time we built a stove for one family, their neighbors would eagerly invite us into their homes and collect bricks for us to build them a stove,” he said. “And every time we completed a stove, the entire family would express their sincerest appreciation by offering to cook us a meal.”

The group in Ghana built 37 stoves over the course of the summer. Pastor Kofi, a community leader in the village, expressed gratitude to the group.

“I have been with the sawdust team, and those whom we have been able to put up stoves for, come to me to thank me, and also to tell me how beneficial that the stove has been to them,” he said.

Ellzey believes that the continued success of the program will rely on one distinction that defines the current generation of students.

“PUC was born in response to student demand,” she said. “Students want to participate in projects that benefit society. This generation has a tremendous social conscience and they want to give back.”

The project in Ghana had a profound impact on Hanna.

“From this project, I can honestly say there is no feeling more satisfying than knowing that all my hard work went into making a tangible difference in the lives of others less fortunate,” he said.

“No good grade or salary can come close to providing that sense of satisfaction.”

Story by Forrest Burnson

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