Engineering the World: ISLP students go to Botswana

Dr. J.P. Mohsen, Chair of Civil & Environmental EngineeringPart of the International Service Learning Project, the Botswana trip is about building and nurture relationships across cultural border. One of three destinations, including Sebu in the Philippines, and Croatia, the Botswana trip is partially overseen by Civil Engineering Professor and Interim Associate Dean of Administration and Faculty Affairs Dr. JP Mohsen.

Setting the Scene

A relatively advanced country by comparison to surrounding African nations, Botswana’s economy benefits from diamond mining. That financial windfall manifests itself in a booming culture, which boasts remarkable utilities and framework to make it easier for commerce and travel.

“The Botswana government has been very fair about the distribution of wealth. They invest in infrastructure. The infrastructure roads, cities, they are in much better shape than in the rest of Africa. The government covers the expenses for education for everyone. As far as they want to go and want to do (students). There is a campaign to increase STEM education,” says Mohsen.

“I went in expecting Africa to be this desolate place, but the advancement of the Botswana was pretty amazing. The children are really connected to American politics. The kids we were with were all well off, but the kids we drove by were dirt poor. They were living in shacks right outside the city,” says Kyle McMahon, a student in the Department of Civil Engineering. “They thought that was America was perfection. They thought everyone was well off in America.”

Getting to Work

For Meredith Cooksey, a recent graduate from the Department of Chemical Engineering with an MA in Engineering Management, the ISLP trip to Botswanna offered her the opportunity to apply her engineering skills to a real-world setting. Not only that, but engaging in the local community afforded her an opportunity for cultural immersion, to get a different perspective on how her education can literally touch lives.

“I have a passion for teaching. I found another part of me that opened up my horizons. In four years of college, I did a lot, but in one week of traveling to Africa, I feel like I got so much more,” says Cooksey.

She adds, “In school sometimes, you get so involved in the math and science that you forget the world around you. To see how engineers, effect the world so far away, especially having just graduated. It was so far away, but it felt so similar. The students were incredibly brilliant and dedicated students. They loved the science experiences. They really enjoyed the science experience and math.”

As soon as Cooksey and the rest of the group landed in Botswanna, they got to work. The first day, the students and faculty met with an after-school program for boys, donating clothes, and surveying the culture. The next three days were spent at a secondary school in Maoka.

“We taught them engineering, launching a rocket, a calorie counter by burning Cheetos. We taught them anti-bullying stuff, mental health, self-confidence, exercise, dental health, geography. They asked us about America and we told them about Botswana. On the third day, we played soccer. We would have done that on the first two days, but they didn’t have enough fire wood; they can only eat lunch if they have fire wood. They just go home,” says McMahon.
For Mohsen, who has visited Botswana a number of time over the years, “It’s them that affect us in a bigger way than we actually affect them. The students after the visit, our students always say they are very amazed at how well behaved the students were there, how knowledgeable they are, how good their English is.”

The Experience

Every year is a little different, which Mohsen is fortunate enough to observe. Over time, he has developed relationships with the other faculty and staff, both here and abroad, that has continued to evolve over the years alongside the structure of their study abroad.

“The first couple of trips, my purpose was to work in an orphanage, which since it has closed, to my knowledge it is not operating right now. My idea was with my students to develop a sustainable village. It was only for boys. They were very interested in creating an environment that would produce their own vegetables for example. We did not build anything, but we educated in terms of solar energy. Rain water catchment. We showed them different ways that they could do that. Using solar energy for cooking," says Mohsen.

Still, for the students involved it presents an opportunity not just to employ their work in a practical application, but to engage in a broader community.

“The ISLP class was really enriching for me. I’m really interested in solar energy, water filtration. We have well developed water systems. That’s what I spent some time doing on co-op. When I saw it in Africa, it spurred the thought again," says Cooksey. “I was really grateful for the opportunity. You don’t have a lot of time to study abroad, but experiencing another country was fulfilling as a globalized student.”

Mohsen adds, “it’s truly interdisciplinary in the sense that the engineering students work closely with other fields. For example, in the orphanage they had to learn how to deal with the social aspects. They were interested in bullying, counseling, and hygiene. Engineering students benefited from the school of public health or the Kent School, for example, which helped us communicate with and provide answers to those questions.”