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A Community Center That's More Than Bricks and Mortar

'Communication for Engineers' students propose more feasible design to make an African community’s dream come true

November 13, 2006 — A team of engineering undergradute students in Viterbi School lecturer Ken Robidoux's WRIT 340 "Communications for Engineers" class has found a way to make an African community's dream come true. Now they are waiting to see if their proposal will become a reality.

In the impoverished city of Limpopo, brick is the sign of affluence, and the community wanted nothing more than to build a beautiful new brick community center to attract more people to meetings, cultural gatherings, food distributions and classes for the elderly.  But brick was too heavy and too expensive to make it practical. 
A drawing of Limpopo's new brick community center.

Christopher Soto and a handful of like-minded classmates — Shifali Shrivastava, Diana Olguin, Brian Kirk and Shame-Er Kamal —  taking WRIT 340 this summer found a solution and presented it this fall to the African Millennium Foundation (AMF), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group representing Limpopo, as well as many many other impoverished African communities seeking technical support for much-needed community projects.  

The Engineering Writing Program  invites non-profits like the AMF to campus  to discuss and develop consulting projects that small groups of upper division engineering undergraduates can undertake as a semester-long “capstone” project. The idea is to give students in the class real world experience in engineering and communication.

Soto and his classmates saw the challenge of the Limpopo project right away. The students spent the summer semester researching and writing a proposal for the center’s design. Since they couldn’t visit Limpopo — which straddles the borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in northeastern South Africa — they knew they would have to communicate and gather information about the site by email, teleconferencing, and by working with instructor Robidoux and local AMF representatives.

But the rewards of being able to come up with a practical solution far outweighed the hurdles, the students thought.  As Shrivastava explained, “It feels really good to make a difference.  It was a lot of hard, serious work done by going out in the community — in real life — and not just researching the topic in the library.”

Los Angeles proved to be a valuable resource for the group.  Given the city’s diverse population and tumultuous history, the engineering students had little difficulty finding a situation and corresponding solution that related to their RFP.

Limpopo Province has science and technology labs for gifted students.
First, they explored suitable building design elements for attractive and functional community centers.  Shrivastava had already solved the question of the buildings themselves.  Long before she knew about the RFP, she had taken a trip to Las Vegas and seen “Classroom On Wheels,” an elementary school clinic consisting of modular rooms that could be could be disconnected and reconnected in different configurations like Legos® to form fully functional buildings. 

Robidoux said the individual units — equipped for physicals, eye exams, vaccinations and other uses — were so advanced that they came with working plumbing and lighting, so there was no need to worry about redirecting or rewiring them. This was added to design suggestions from a previous class.

Soto took charge of the inquiries about practical, affordable kinds of materials that would give the community a greater sense of pride, both socio-economically and culturally.  Although brick was the community’s choice, he knew the material was too heavy for a building that was supposed to be mobile, and too expensive for the town to purchase.  But he had problems with other choices, too.  Stucco, the common and inexpensive choice, sounded too plain and unappealing.  So did corgonomical steel. 

Then it dawned on him: use a brick façade that would give the appearance of real brick but be lighter and less expensive.

As the team designed the community center, students decided to add a nursery for mothers who wanted to receive an education or learn a new hobby.  Kirk, an advocate of community-oriented activities, wanted to establish an educational curriculum of reading, basic scientific knowledge and mathematical skills that could be offered to those who used the center. 

Teammate Shame-Er noted that even basic skills could be emphasized through crafts, computer usage and physical education. And as the people began to build their skills and gain some confidence, they could move into some more elaborate age-appropriate activities that would incorporate more advanced skills, like computer programming and Web design.
Limpopo Province shares the borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in northeastern South Africa

In late September, the students presented their design to AMF President Malena Ruth, Sharon Stewart, director of Community Outreach for USC Civic and Community Relations, and Jeannie Linders and Kim Whithurst of the Entertainment to Empowerment Foundation. Stewart commended the team for using the skills they had learned in the Los Angeles community in combination with their engineering backgrounds.  She said she was confident that the project had prepared them to be able to work anywhere in the world.

The students’ report will play an important part in the next step of Limpopo’s plans to build the facility.  AMF will use the USC report to prepare grant applications for the facility’s funding. 

A growing number of service organizations in Los Angeles have caught on to the advantages of using USC’s Engineering Writing Program to expand or upgrade their own facilities.  Since its inception in 1998, EWP has developed relationships with more than 90 nonprofit organizations in the Los Angeles area, according to program director Stephen Bucher, and many organizations have implemented the Viterbi students’ ideas. NPOs have also received many more grants, thanks to the student reports, than they had in the past.  

In the past two years, two student projects started in WRIT 340 have been awarded University Neighborhood Outreach (UNO) grants.
Limpopo River in autumn.

For more information about the Engineering Writing Program, contact Stephen Bucher at sbucher@usc.edu.

--Elizabeth So, a senior majoring in biomedical and chemical engineering, reported this story for the Viterbi School of Engineering