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Into Africa

Undergraduates transcend the classroom to help an African village

November 12, 2004 —
Shelley Howard, a 22-year-old chemical engineering major, is passionate about environmental conservation in Africa.  During the spring 2004 semester, without leaving the classroom, the graduating senior helped an impoverished Central African village design its first water and power system.   
“As soon as I heard that one of the projects in this class was about Africa, I jumped right on it,” she said excitedly.  “This is real life stuff. Africa is going to be developed in the next 30 years and I fully intend to use my degree to work on international issues and environmental conservation there.”
Her classmate, Eric Lim, a junior civil engineering major, was just as excited to work with the Central African township of N’Djili.  Hoping someday to “serve people as an engineer,” he said developing his proposal to design a water purification system made him realize just how undeveloped Third World countries really are.   
Howard and Lim participated in a new program to support undeveloped Third World countries as part of their course, WRIT 340 “Advanced Writing: Communication for Engineering.”  Now in its sixth year, the course employs an innovative, hands-on approach to improve engineering communications skills of the juniors and seniors who “transcend the classroom” and put their technical know-how to work on local community service projects.   But in this case, the community lay on the other side of the world.
N’Djili, a French-speaking town of 277,000 people, is about five miles from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A huge portion of adults have died of AIDS and 40 percent of the children do not attend school.
Overcoming barriers
The engineering faced daunting geographic, cultural and language barriers to develop their infrastructure projects, said Steven Weinberg, a lecturer and one of six faculty who teach the course.   
“They had to come to a cultural understanding about N’Djili to understand that they were dealing with a people who don’t have a sanitation system for their town, but are capable of having an Internet video-conference,” Weinberg said.  “Given these unique circumstances, we asked the students to think creatively and come up with new approaches to solving some of the town’s needs.”
The African Millennium Foundation (AMF), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the improvement of economic, educational and health care standards, and general social and economic empowerment in impoverished areas of Africa, acted as the students’ go-between.
“N’Djili is like many parts of Africa,” said Malena Ruth, AMF president.  “It’s a town with no infrastructure, no power or electricity.  People drink contaminated water from ground wells and wash their clothes in the river.  The children don’t know about flush toilets and the adults are being wiped out by AIDS.”
Students quickly learned that N’Djili “wasn’t just L.A. with dirt,” Weinberg said.  But they focused on the “customer’s needs” to find solutions that made sense to N’Djili.    
The students broke up in teams of four to work on water treatment and purification systems, drip irrigation systems, small, auxiliary hydroelectric power units and a computer lab.  They only got one chance to speak directly to N’Djili officials, during a two-hour videoconference that required French-speaking translators on both ends.  Whatever wasn’t answered during that videoconference had to be researched or answered via email. 
The lack of contact with N’Djili frustrated many. “Glitzy technology is wonderful, but if you don’t have enough information to choose the right power system, it won’t work,” said Morgan Hendry, 21, an astronautics major. “There is no substitute for visiting,” added Matt Feehan, 22, a civil engineering major. 
Just like the real world
Shunning conventional pedagogy to the end, the students eventually found themselves in formal business attire and armed with PowerPoint slides to present their recommendations for building water, power and irrigation systems to the African Millennium Foundation.
“We asked them to own their projects and do whatever it took to finish them, like they’ll have to do in the working world,” Weinberg said.
The foundation will use the students’ reports to fill out grant applications.  If they come up empty handed, the next crop of students taking the course will pick up where this group left off.  Or, they will likely tackle other AMF projects.
“It’s just the start of a long-term partnership between USC and the foundation to create mutually beneficial relationships in Africa,” Weinberg said.      
USC’S Engineering Writing Program has helped a number of service organizations in the Los Angeles area and a growing number of them are asking program director Stephen Bucher for help.  Students have done everything from reconfiguring computer labs to designing playgrounds.  Bucher said organizations have used the student reports to obtain grants ranging from $5,000 to $800,000.
USC’s Civic and Community Relations Office brought AMF to Bucher.  AMF’s president, Ruth, said the first set of proposals was “truly groundbreaking.” She added that N’Djili could probably begin to build some rudimentary power and irrigation systems, and try some new ways of cooking, before the year was out.  The students were elated.
“That’s what we wanted students to experience,” Bucher said.  “We wanted them to know that there was much more than a grade at stake here.  They got to see how their ideas directly affect others.”
For more information about the Engineering Writing Program, contact Stephen Bucher at sbucher@usc.edu .
--Diane Ainsworth