STORIES

Civil Engineers Teach and Learn in Ghana

William Sommer '11 and Dan Lawrie '11At times, collaborating with local masons in Gambibgo, Ghana, on a new method of building using local soil mixed with a little cement was challenging for William Sommer ’11 and Dan Lawrie ’11, civil engineering majors, as they spent a month in the African village building a house with a catenary arch and specially designed adobe bricks. Language barriers, cultural differences, and supply delays slowed the timeline they developed for their senior design project.  But keeping their eyes on the ultimate goal for the public good—teaching locals a new, inexpensive, sustainable construction method while providing them with a community gathering place—helped them put the project in perspective.

The students came to realize that although this was their senior design project, it wasn’t about them. “The whole idea was to make this a building they could construct without us,” Lawrie said. “It was frustrating. It was hard to build. But it’s one of those things where you learn to just give. Not a lot of people get a chance to do something like that.”

The project built on efforts of two former senior design teams from SCU working in cooperation with Village Projects International, an organization that funds grassroots efforts for sustainable rural development. Lawrie and Sommer tweaked the techniques and designs used previously to make them easier for locals to replicate, eliminating more expensive options requiring a brick press and a corrugated tin roof.

Local masons quickly learned the methods and talked of teaching others as well. Several politicians came by to observe the project and discussed investing in the designs for their regions. “Knowledge is power in a lot of ways,” Sommer says. “Sharing what we knew and what we’ve learned with the local people definitely made a difference. And these people’s lives will never be the same.”

And neither will theirs. “I’m really proud of the students,” says James W. Reites, S.J., an associate professor of religious studies who accompanied the students to Ghana. “It’s very heart-warming to see them take hold of a project like this and just go with it. They’ve been exposed to the idea of living in a global world, the idea of global solidarity, from the time that they were freshmen. A trip like this opens their eyes, transforms their minds. Global outreach and social justice come alive in experiences like these.”