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‘Engineers In Action’: Penn State Students To Build Footbridge In Eswatini

Engineers In Action is a student organization in the College of Engineering that’s been preparing all year for a charity effort in Nkambule, Eswatini, which is located in Southern Africa.

In Eswatini, students will work with locals to construct a footbridge. Comprised of undergraduates and chapters from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Virginia, and of course, Penn State, the group’s designs and labor will aid a rural community where flood seasons make a central river treacherous to pass.

The bridge, named Masongwane, will stretch across the Mkhondvo River and is being designed by a team led by construction manager Justin Tristani, junior manager Ben Wojciechowski, logistics manager Caitlin Grabowski, and cultural relations lead Lucas Lu.

Project manager Olivia Dunham shared just how dire the situation in Nkambule is in the rainy season. In dry periods, the river is easy to wade through, but once the rainy season comes about, it’s a much more grim journey. She noted that in the last three years, at least five people have drowned in the crossing. Because of how central the Mkhondvo River is in this community, crossing it is a daily necessity for residents who must brave it to walk to their farms, church, and market.

“Imagine crossing a rushing river just to get to the HUB,” Dunham said.

Courtesy of Engineers In Action

The team is obviously halfway across the world from the river, but it’s already working on solutions without seeing it firsthand. The local community shared rough specifications of the river length, depth, and path. The goal is to create a low-cost, durable, and safe bridge for the people of Nkambule.

“The community is extremely excited about the bridge project,” Dunham said. “They are building a dirt road so that the team can better access the community and have been collecting rocks that will be necessary for the build.”

The community is also providing the team with housing for the duration of the project, letting the group immerse themselves in the culture while working on the structure.

The plan for the bridge is simple. First, the crew will form cement slabs, three on one side and four opposite, to raise the bridge height above the ever-changing waterline. Then, the team will suspend a fenced, wooden crossing deck from one side to the other, tensioning the lines to make for a stable structure.

Dunham also made sure to mention that the team will be working without generators, power tools, or heavy machinery in the field, only getting to use a cutting tool to trim the cables. The saw and electricity needed to run such a tool are located in a distant town, so the old adage of “measure twice, cut once” will be all the more meaningful.

Courtesy of Engineers In Action

The National Engineers In Action organization has a 20-year history of bridge building. Every bridge built is still in working condition, despite the lack of maintenance and the luxury of modern materials used on bridges in the United States, validating its simple but effective design. Right now, the crossing is slated to cost just above $50,000, and the team is currently fundraising through a survey company called HundredX, which donates $2 per survey to the group.

Dunham mentioned that the team is still looking for new members to help finalize the plan by the end of the semester.

“Our organization is open to anyone, but obviously we are mostly made up of engineering students,” Dunham said. “Although the travel team is selected, anyone is welcome to join the organization who wants to help our cause.”

For more information, reach out to Engineers In Action on Instagram or check out its website.

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About the Author

Jack Scott

Jack is a junior industrial engineering major from Pittsburgh, PA. Sometimes, he enjoys the misunderstanding of his friends and family that Penn State Club Ski Racing may be a D1 sport and usually won't correct them. Jack is way too into Thundercat for his own good. Follow him on Twitter @joscottIV and Instagram @jackscott._iv

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