Monday, May 21, 2012

Building More than Bridges in Morocco

A group of Columbia Engineering students intend to kick off the summer with a six-week stay in Morocco, not as tourists, but as bridge engineers.

The Morocco team from Columbia’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) departs mid-May for the rural community of Ait Bayoud, located in the southern region of the North African country. They plan to build a suspended footbridge, spanning 200 feet, over the Tagawowt River so that residents will finally have a way to get to fresh food, medicine, their schools, and markets, during a three-month rainy season that typically prevents access to these necessities. Some 5,000 villagers are affected each year. In addition to beginning construction during this trip, the students also will educate residents on the safety and upkeep of the footbridge. The goal is to have the residents take ownership of the bridge and be responsible for its longterm maintenance.

Dhristie Bhagat, a junior biomedical engineering major, and Nina Morency-Brassard,
Columbia College alum and the team's Peace Corps contact

To help them fund their project, the Morocco EWB team recently won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace. The organization is an initiative funded by Kathryn W. Davis to help undergraduate students design and implement their own grassroots projects during the summer months.

For Andrew Sumner, a member of the Morocco EWB team, this entire experience has been a valuable and rewarding one.

“This type of volunteer work speaks directly to the true calling of engineering,” said Sumner, a sophomore chemical engineering major. “Engineering isn’t necessarily just about the frontier of technology, it’s about improving the quality of life for everyone. Addressing basic needs through a project sourcing water or a footbridge uniting a geographically separated community is much more important than modern technology.”

This marks the first trip to Morocco for Sumner, though he has been involved with this particular project since the start of his freshman year. The Morocco project began in 2011 after a Columbia College alumna, Nina Morency-Brassard, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ait Bayoud, reached out to Columbia’s EWB chapter about the community’s particular challenge dealing with the rainy season.

Story by Melanie A. Farmer


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