Mentoring the UCLA Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

Over the past year, several of us in West Los Angeles and Pasadena have mentored a group of undergrad students in UCLA’s Engineers Without Borders student chapter. The students worked hard to put together drawings, calculations, and a construction manual for a new one-story schoolhouse to be built in one of the most rural areas of Nicaragua.

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In September, I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua with several students to begin the first phase of construction: the concrete foundations. We had one week to transform a rural grass field (that was home to several trees, a possum, a snake, and countless palm-sized spiders) into a fully cleared, excavated, compacted, and prepped construction site for a 32 foot x 64 foot schoolhouse.

This was a problem-solver’s paradise: How can we clear and level a site with nothing more than machetes? How do we excavate 3 feet down in 2 days with only shovels and picks? How can we mix concrete without a mixer? Where do you buy construction supplies when the nearest town is 30 miles away? How do you bend #4 rebar with no tools? What happens when there is a rain downpour and your excavations get filled with water?

3-ewob-oct-2017-las-blog.jpgWhen facing these kinds of challenges so far from home, it is easy to get intimidated. Thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the Nicaraguan people in the community, who were so willing to help and grateful to have us there, instead of getting intimidated we got motivated. At least ten men from the community would volunteer their time to help us with the work each day, and we would work from 7 AM until sundown. At the beginning of each day, I would take several of the locals aside who had construction experience, and talk through my work plan for the day to see where we could employ local “tricks of the trade” to make the construction simpler. Where it saved time and energy, we did it; where it would sacrifice structural integrity, we thought of a new way that wouldn’t.

It turns out that the answer to all of the questions above is this: With a lot of hardworking people, and even more creativity and resourcefulness. We built our own rebar bending tool out of wood and scrap rebar. We used a heavy log as a roller for compaction. Small teams of people worked in 30-minute intervals to accomplish the most demanding of the physical labor, and then handed it off to the next small group to take over so the first group could take a break. We mixed concrete without a mixer by casting a large rat slab over the grass, let it cure for a day, and then used shovels to mix the cement, sand, aggregate, and water together on top of it. No amount of creativity and resourcefulness could stop the rain from flooding our excavations though… we had to cast the foundations in the morning on damp soil, and make sure the fresh concrete was covered in time for the afternoon rains. 


In one week, we completed about 75% of the foundation work. When we left to go back to the United States, we left enough supplies for the community to finish the last 25% using the same methods we used while we were there, and in our absence they sent us photos and videos of the construction via Facebook. We are now planning for Phase 2 of the construction, which is scheduled to occur this December during the student’s Winter Break. Let the problem solving begin again!

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