This summer, five students from the University of Houston’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) student chapter traveled to the rural Nicaraguan village of Telpochapa to construct a schoolhouse from the ground up.
The trip took place from August 8, 2015 to August 16, 2015 and was the final implementation stage of a long-term EWB project that began six year ago. UH engineering students Ishan Chakrabarty, Conner Judson, Rafi Mohammed, James Schouten and Ayesha Sohail were joined by Jody Muniz, a professional engineer who served as their industry mentor, and Juan Guzman, a mechanical engineering office assistant at UH who served as their translator.
Engineers Without Borders is an international non-profit humanitarian organization that partners with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life. The University of Houston’s student chapter was established in 2006 with the goal of designing and implementing sustainable solutions for communities in need, both locally and globally.The UH EWB chapter is open to students of all majors and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and problem solving.
Located in a remote region of the country, the village of Telpochapa sits in a valley and is only accessible by unpaved roads. Just to arrive at the work site, the UH team had to navigate difficult terrain in a 4x4 truck. The remote location and tough terrain made coordinating material deliveries a surprising challenge.
Several trips by a semi-truck were required to bring all of the materials from the nearest participating hardware stores to the worksite. During those trips, the semi-truck blew out several tires and lost its headlights.
As all of the materials arrived, Chakrabarty, Judson, Mohammed, Schouten and Sohail had their work cut out from them. Only the concrete foundation for the schoolhouse had been laid by a previous UH EWB travel group; the rest of the structure remained to be built. The students, eager to get their hands dirty, set to work mixing and pouring concrete, moving cinderblocks and shoveling an entire trailer’s worth of rocks at the construction site. They were also joined by local construction workers and skilled laborers who provided guidance throughout the project.
“Honestly, the attitude of the group was that we wanted to help in a hands-on way,” said Schouten, who served as the project manager on the trip.
Telpochapa’s residents had requested help from EWB because the foundation of the previous schoolhouse had eroded, making the school unstable and unsafe. The new one-room schoolhouse was designed by EWB to withstand a 6.5 or 7.0 earthquake, as well as 150 mile per hour winds. The students also implemented additional reinforcements onsite to ensure long-term structural stability, strength and safety.
“Being able to help the village get a school where their children are safe and being able to show the community that we genuinely care was the most rewarding part of the experience,” said Judson, who served as co-project lead on the trip.
Seeing how the local children responded to the group’s effort was another big reward, the group members agreed.
“You’d see their curiosity and awe and happiness,” said Schouten. He added that Sohail, the only female member in the group, made a huge impression on the children.
“The kids all gravitated toward Ayesha. The girls didn’t take their eyes off her and, near the end, they even wanted to help,” said Schouten.
Although the schoolhouse project came to a successful completion by the end of their trip, UH’s EWB chapter isn’t slowing down their efforts to give back to other communities. The group is now in the early stages of planning the next project, determining the destination of the next trip and carefully researching how best to apply their efforts to future endeavors.
The UH EWB chapter has more than doubled in size this school year, and the student leaders are seeking input from current members to determine the scope and details next project. Judson, who is taking on the role of project lead this year, said that “because this is the start of a new cycle, we want to find out what projects are meaningful to our members.”