Beyond textbooks

More than two dozen Portland State students will be spending spring break in Nicaragua, working on projects to help the elderly live more comfortable lives.


This will mark the first year for about 10 engineering students affiliated with the Portland State chapter of Engineers Without Boundaries to make the trip. A group of up to 20 will go from the Institute on Aging. This will be the third year for their program. The two groups will work together on several projects.


“Nicaragua was very heavily impacted by civil war,” said Colleen Jenkins, senior in civil engineering and president of the Engineers Without Borders chapter at PSU.


“Many of the middle-aged and young people left the country,” she said. “Traditionally, grandparents lived with their children but in the last 10 years this hasn’t happened.” The result, she said, is that many old people are living in group-homes with inadequate resources and uncomfortable environments.


Tuesday night the engineers viewed a presentation by two members of the Portland Professional Partners chapter of Engineers Without Boundaries who have immersed themselves in the Nicaraguan experience. They were Brad Bogus, senior associate engineer with Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, and Teresa Morales, structural engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


Bogus showed slides of the two locations where the engineers will mount projects in the cities of Matagalpa and Jinotepe. Jenkins explained that at Jinotepe the project will involve improving the water pressure and flow from a metal water tower. Bogus analyzed the total problem as providing conservation of water, adequate storage and pump controls. Running water is available to the residents and staff only a few hours a day and the engineers hope to remedy that. Meanwhile, the staff must fill five-gallon cans with water in the brief time water is flowing.


At Matagalpa, the work will involve installing underground irrigation to a fruit tree orchard that helps feed and support the elder inhabitants who are housed in an old convent. Irrigation is done by inadequate open pipes on the surface of the ground. They are frequently vandalized and sometimes thieves steal the pipes, Morales said.


“The communities have requested help,” Jenkins said. “It’s such a great opportunity for the students – a great way to take it out of textbook land.” The engineering group is being underwritten in large part by the Portland Professional Partners chapter of Engineers Without Boundaries, but only for this first year. From here on, the PSU chapter, formed last December, will need to find its own funds.


“We really want someone with a private grant,” Jenkins said. The chapter is also trying to work its participation into some course content, but that is still in the embryo state. The Institute on Aging people find themselves in a more advanced stage in this respect.


Neal said there is a special course, not found in the course catalog, on Global International Health and Aging: Focus on Nicaragua. Interested undergraduate and graduate students may get further information by calling the institute at 503-725-3952.


The active relationship between the Institute on Aging students and the engineering students is still in the formative stage, according to Margaret Neal, director of the institute. Both groups are working closely with the Pan-American Health Organization.


Now in its third year, the Institute on Aging program also heavily involves Marvin Kaiser, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Keren Brown Wilson, an adjunct professor in the institute and a long-time donor to the university. Financial support comes from the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation.


Neal said the roster of students who go to Nicaragua under the institute’s program comes from a variety of disciplines: sociology, psychology, business, public health, urban studies and urban management.


“We had one unit working on dementia, another on exercise, another on teaching massage,” Neal said. One group installed a water heater. All these involve services in care facilities for the aging.


Neal said there are 35 to 40 students in the program but not all get to go to Nicaragua.


“We hope to send up to 20,” she said. Those who do not go, in both the engineering group and the institute group, will participate in organization and training for the projects. Some students will be involved in assessment of the projects as they unfold.

The program Bogus presented to the engineers involved some amenities besides the work. There was an allocation of time for sightseeing and final celebrations at the end.