News

Engineering students are building bridges, in more ways than one

4/8/2013 11:06:00 AM

There is an old Chinese saying: “You can see the most beautiful things from the top of a mountain.” Recently, a University of Illinois team—three undergraduates, one graduate student, and an engineering alumnus—discovered the saying to be true, literally.

The U of I team on its way to the bridge site: (l to r) Alumus Sean Marzano, Matt Dacanay, Nora Benson, Karl Sengupta, and Michele Niaki.
The U of I team on its way to the bridge site: (l to r) Alumus Sean Marzano, Matt Dacanay, Nora Benson, Karl Sengupta, and Michele Niaki.
During winter break of 2012-13, the group traveled to rural China for a site assessment for a suspended bridge project, part of continued research for College of Engineering’s LINC class, ENG 315 (BTC section).

“I decided to take ENG 315 because I was really interested in learning how to use my engineering skills to make an impact on the world,” remarked Matt Dacanay, an undergraduate in mechanical science and engineering. “The Bridge to China (BTC) section sparked my interest because I really enjoy learning about different cultures and working on service projects for poor communities."

“I wanted to experience a new culture, meet new people and learn more about engineering and communication,” explained Karl Sengupta, a civil and environmental engineering (CEE) undergraduate. "This was the perfect opportunity for me to gain some experience in implementing a real project."

Project Leader Michele Niaki crosses a river at the site where the students are planning on building the bridge.
Project Leader Michele Niaki crosses a river at the site where the students are planning on building the bridge.
The long-term project was set up by the LINC directors in collaboration with Chongqing Jiaotong University and Wu Zhi Qiao Charitable Foundation—also known as Bridge to China Foundation—a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong. Spanning four semesters, the BTC project should be completed by fall 2013.

The trip to Awozhu Village, located in Yunnan Province, China, was the result of a semester’s preparation by the entire ENG 315 Class, who assisted the BTC Foundation by generating new knowledge, raising funds, and providing manpower to plan and design a suspended bridge to connect three relatively small villages to the nearby Sheng Village—a government township offering access to health centers, a school, and a market to sell and buy goods.

According to Michele Niaki, who served as one of two project managers for the Eng. 315 Fall 2012 Project Team, the trip was essential to meet the Chinese team collaborating on the project, to evaluate the feasibility of the project, and gather site data that would help them refine the design the class had created. Specific tasks included a topographical survey, a hydrological study, and excavation to collect soil samples as well community meetings to gain the villagers’ input and secure a formal agreement to build the bridge.

But the trip proved to be more than the sum of engineering activities.

“I learned about so many things at the same time: me, the villagers, the Chinese students, teamwork, project management, culture, civic duty, and most simply what is important in life,” said Niaki, a CEE graduate student studying construction management. “I fully realized how this project is not just about building a bridge, but about building relationships, learning about how to collaborate, and the joys of collaborating."

“I wanted to visit China to experience a new culture, meet new people and learn more about engineering and communication. But I also wanted to gain field experience in civil engineering in a new environment that would make me stand out as an exceptional student,” Sengupta said.

Karl Sengupta (r) and the Chongqing Jiaotong University students tested the depth of the soil at the bridge site. Being so far removed from the village Karl had to use a hammer and pole to get a measurement.
Karl Sengupta (r) and the Chongqing Jiaotong University students tested the depth of the soil at the bridge site. Being so far removed from the village Karl had to use a hammer and pole to get a measurement.
In early November, the assessment team got to work obtaining visas, getting the proper vaccinations and medicines, searching for trip tickets and hotels, and studying up on Chinese culture. After months of work and two plane trips, they were greeted by Bridge to China club members in Chongqing airport. 

“From our very first meeting, I was amazed at how welcoming the Chongqing students were and how well they had planned our journey,” remarked Nora Benson, a freshman in general engineering. “Although we did not share a common language, we were all very curious about one another, and we found a way to share our stories using imperfect English and a little bit of Chinese.”

Although the site assessment itself took only two days to complete, getting there took two days all by itself, including one plane ride from the Chongqing to Kunming, a 7-hour bus ride, and 3½ hour hike to the village of Awhozu. The daily visit to the bridge site took an additional 40-minute hike.

On New Years Eve Michele Niaki and the other students joined their village hosts in making dumplings.
On New Years Eve Michele Niaki and the other students joined their village hosts in making dumplings.
“Seeing the river for the very first time, I knew all our work this semester and the many hours of travel we put into getting there was worth it: the place was amazing!” Benson exclaimed. “After the first day’s work, we made it back to the home base in time for dinner, where the Chinese students taught us all how to wrap the dumplings we made for our New Year’s Eve dinner. For the next few hours we all sat around talking and playing games until just before midnight when we all got serious and shared our wishes for the New Year."

“I spent a long time doing surveying and hydrologic analysis,” Dacanay recalled. “Though I’m not a civil engineer, these were very fascinating experiences that helped me understand more about bridge projects. Now, I know much more about site investigation trips and what tests need to take place in order to account for various obstacles.

“For example, on the trip it became clear that it would be very hard to transport certain materials to the bridge site, so we had to be creative in thinking about other material and transportation options,” Dacanay said. “I also learned more about the non-technical aspects of engineering projects like dealing with legal issues and establishing agreements with community members and officials.”

New Years Day lunch break at the remote bridge site: (l to r) Dr. Chen, Nora Benson, Yang Jun, and Luo Na.
New Years Day lunch break at the remote bridge site: (l to r) Dr. Chen, Nora Benson, Yang Jun, and Luo Na.
The group also met with local leaders about a potential project to follow the bridge construction—building a new school. After completing their surveys, the group said its goodbyes to the villagers and headed out of the house and back up the mountains.

“It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed ourselves much more than on our trip to the village, taking pictures and singing as we took in the beautiful scenery of the mountains that had been covered in fog on our trip down,” Benson said. “It was somewhat bittersweet because we knew some of us might never get the chance to visit again and that we would have to separate soon, but also happy because we knew that our trip to the village had been very successful.”

After returning to Chongqing from the site visit, the Chinese students led a tour around the city and their school (Chongqing Jiaotong University). There, Engineering at Illinois alumnus Sean Marzano (BS '95, MS '98, Civil and Environmental Engineering), who had volunteered to assist students as a technical advisor for the structural design and calculations of the bridge, made a presentation that was attended by the dean of the College of Architecture and Civil Engineering as well as many professors and students. As part of the presentation, Benson and Niaki provided background about the University of Illinois, the LINC class, and their experiences collaborating with the Chinese team.

A school teacher from the Awhozu village stands with his class outside the school house.
A school teacher from the Awhozu village stands with his class outside the school house.
“Afterwards, we were all treated to dinner in a nice restaurant by the Dean where we presented gifts to the major people involved and smaller tokens to those in the Chongqing Jioatong Universtiy Bridge to China Club,” Benson recalled. The next week, all of the American students visited Shanghai and Beijing on their own, meeting up with their Chinese counterparts for a last meal together before the long journey back the U.S.

Once home, each of the students noted that the experiences—both the technical exercises and, especially, the social interactions—had a major impact on them.

“I have learned so much of what the world has to offer and that I have just been living in a bubble,” Sengupta said. “I was so moved to see students who were extremely poor—sometimes struggling to have three meals a day—were going out of their way to work on a project to help people who were less fortunate them, never complaining always cheerful and happy and always smiling.

“My impression of engineering has changed after this trip. What we learn in the classroom is only part of the picture,” Sengupta added. “What is most important is the way you think, understand and interpret situations, looking for the best possible result for the given scenario, whether or not it is the most practical or feasible.

“Our alumni advisor, Sean Marzano has been guiding the project for almost two years and has been providing us with invaluable technical expertise,” Sengupta noted. “He puts in hours of work every week to help us with the drawings and calculations on top of his regular job and taking care of his young family. Without his generous help and patience we would not have been half as successful as we are.”

In the village of Awhozu the students completed  their site assessment with a contract to continue work on the bridge. The town Mayor,  U of I team, and other student and village representatives came together to decide the terms.
In the village of Awhozu the students completed their site assessment with a contract to continue work on the bridge. The town Mayor, U of I team, and other student and village representatives came together to decide the terms.
“I think this project will definitely have a significant impact,” Dacanay said. “This bridge is the first suspended bridge project that the Wu Zhi Qiao Charitable Foundation has ever done, so once they gain some experience with this style of bridge, they will be able to help rural communities in the mountainous regions that weren’t previously able to support the previous type of bridge the organization had been using. Already a team in Hong Kong has started to research more about suspended bridge technology and will use the information we give them to start a new project like ours.”

Niaki agreed. “I’m confident that this trip significantly contributed towards the progress of a project that will have tremendous effect on the lives of the villagers who it will serve. Through the relationships that we made, and the research that has been conducted, we can easily say this trip will help us finish this project.

“I had always wanted to work on a community development project, but did not know of a project that I would actually feel I could make a difference or have any life-changing value,” Niaki, added. “We went to the village to change their lives but it changed our lives."

Nora Benson, Matt Dacanay, and Karl Sengupta, were members of the fall 2012 ENG 315 (BTC) class. The spring 2013 class will be led by Dacanay and Sengupta as the new Illinois Project Managers.
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Contact: Matt Dacanay or Karl Sengupta

Photos provided by student team members.

Photo Editor: Madeline Rose, Engineering Communications Office

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.