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NMSU engineering students continue tradition of service, redesign school building

The old school structure in Queretaro, Mexico, was a tarpaper and pallet shack with a dirt floor. It served as both an overflow school building for a school too small to hold all of its students and a community medical clinic for the doctor who visits each week.

New Mexico State University’s Engineering Without Boundaries built this two-room school in Queretaro, Mexico, as their summer 2014 service project. (Courtesy photo)

NMSU Engineering students worked side-by-side with members of the community to build a school in Queretaro, Mexico. (Courtesy photo)

Over the summer, 14 students in New Mexico State University’s Engineering Without Boundaries helped to replace the shack with a proper schoolhouse.

Two NMSU alumni, two faculty members and one staff member joined the students in the project. Kenny Stevens, NMSU associate professor of engineering technology, serves as adviser to the Engineering Without Boundaries group, formerly known as Engineers Without Borders.

“We sent a team of two students down over spring break and surveyed the spot and said they thought it would work,” Stevens said. “The students spent the rest of the semester designing a two-room schoolhouse – one big room, and a small room on the side that might act as the doctor’s area. We put in plumbing, so it will have water, too.”

Engineering Without Boundaries’ mission is to bring students, faculty and community members together to improve the daily lives of developing communities through sustainable infrastructure.
The students designed the school building from scratch and put in green features such as clerestory windows, which face south and are placed high on the walls to allow in light.

“The school is up at 9,000 feet, so it’s cold, even though it’s down at about 20 degrees latitude,” Stevens said. “It’s pretty chilly – it gets down into the low 30s in the winter. The advance team texted back and said to tell everybody to bring jackets because it’s getting down into the 40s at night. We oriented the building so they could make use of the south-facing wall and get some thermal mass heating in the winter.”

The building was constructed from locally sourced supplies and made mostly of cinderblocks. The team hired a local mason to help with the project.

“The students are great, but they’re what you call ‘unskilled laborers,’ so we hired somebody local to help with the ins and outs,” Stevens said. “We also had sweat equity opportunities, so the community also put in five or six people per day to join with the students on the project. It gets to be a pretty tight group.”

Catching the volunteering “bug”

“I was a Peace Corps volunteer for several years, so I suppose that gave me the (volunteering) bug,” Stevens said. “Then, in the mid-2000s, there were a couple of students who had heard about the whole Engineering Without Boundaries movement, and had gone to a couple conferences and came back excited, so they decided over lunch one day to do something here. The one young woman who got it started was just tireless. I got hung up in her enthusiasm.”

The thing that makes the concept work, according to Stevens, is that there is a product at the end that does good for the local community. The students can step back, look at it and be proud that they have done something that can really help someone.

“It’s a pretty big natural high. There’s no downside to it. Ever since the first project in 2009 in Mexico, the students graduate and they don’t want to stop, so they call and say ‘can I go this year? I can get two weeks off or a week off,’” Stevens said. “They just don’t want to stop.”

Prior to each trip, the students meet every week for a couple hours, then as the trip gets closer, they will sometimes meet twice a week to plan, work through the logistics, design and prepare for any foreseeable contingencies. Once on the ground, the group typically spends two to two-and-a-half weeks working 12-hour days to complete the project.

They usually stay in the local village but this time, they stayed in the structure they replaced, the old school building, and in tents nearby. They hire local families to cook for them, and typically one or two families feed them for the duration of the trip, but on this occasion, so many families wanted to help that several different families hosted them for meals.

“What grabs me about the whole thing is that we’re all in the education business. Seeing a student experience something new that they’re never seen before, and seeing it grab hold of them and they see the benefits of giving back – they get something out of it, they get to travel and it’s something new – but in most cases, it sticks with them. It tends to affect how they are after they graduate. The alumni keep on going. You see them getting involved with volunteer activities, community outreach activities and with community development activities after they graduate. I think that helps them,” Stevens added.

Student transportation costs for this trip were $9,000, including room and board, while materials for the school cost about $9,000. The engineers always plan for contingencies and usually donate items to the community, such as soccer balls and school supplies, bringing the total cost of the trip to about $20,000.

Aggies Go Global has assisted with student travel costs for the last several years and Rotary Club of Alamogordo also regularly supports these projects.

Community members can support NMSU’s Engineering Without Boundaries through its website at engineeringwithoutboundaries.org, or through the NMSU Foundation.