NUIG student project in Africa highlights practical value of education Print this article

A project carried out by the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway (NUIG) has shown that service-based learning can play an important role in engineering education for students and communities in rural Africa

The project aimed to encourage children to explore the world of science and engineering.

The College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway initiated a pilot programme in April 2009, with the Alan Kerins African Projects, to give its undergraduate students the opportunity to work in developing countries as part of their academic courses.

The overall objective of the project, which had a one-year duration, was to design a lower-cost sustainable construction technology, such as stabilised soil blocks, by reducing the amount of cement used or replacing it with alternative materials sourced locally and which were waste or by-products of another industry.

An extensive literature review was carried out by the students, in parallel with laboratory tests at NUIG, which aimed to replicate and improve the characteristics of stabilised soil blocks currently used in Western Zambia. Together with a qualified engineer, the students travelled to Western Zambia in August 2009. This trip was used to gather further information on materials available locally, which could be used in the manufacture of low-cost sustainable construction techniques.

Inspiring future engineers

In addition, the civil engineering students designed (in collaboration with Engineers Ireland) and ran workshops for the orphan and school children in Western Zambia to encourage the children to explore the world of science and engineering.  It was hoped the process would inspire them to pursue a career in this area.                                                                                                                      

This could potentially lead to up-skilling of the local workforce and increased employment in the region. Other initiatives undertaken by the students included surveying of a proposed site and the redesign of a water supply system. The students had a lot of interaction with the locals and were able to gain some practical engineering knowledge.

It was evident from this project that through service-based learning the students’ energy could have a positive impact on the community. Their enthusiasm was better utilised (and increased) by setting assignments as real community-based projects.

The students got a sense of pride and satisfaction out of the knowledge that their work may be helping communities and that learning is not just to get marks to pass an exam.

NUIG civil engineering students travelled to Africa as part of their academic course..

Motivated learners 

Learners are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others (Bransford J.D., Brown A.L., and Cocking R.R., eds., 2000, ‘How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition’, Commission on Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education [CBASSE]).

Other initiatives implemented in the BE in Civil Engineering programme over the last two years, included all students in the second year of the programme carrying out a community-based project, where at the start of the project the students created learning outcomes of an individual nature for their plan and signed a learning agreement with their community partner.                                     
This increased the students’ sense of ownership of their own learning, as the students are free to pick any topic of interest to them, within the broader realm of the module area.

This approach fits well with the ideas of engaged scholarship (Boyer, E., 1996, The scholarship of engagement. Journal of Public Outreach 1,1: 11-20) and civic professionalism (Sullivan, W (2005) Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America. New York: Jossey-Bass). 
Following on from the success of this initiative, another group of civil engineering students have been selected for this project, which again will be of one-year duration and split into three phases.

The first phase will be an initial research project at the National University of Ireland, which will help prepare the students for the second phase, which is working on real engineering projects in Zambia with the local community. The third phase will help the students to develop their skills and knowledge further through projects which will have a direct benefit for the people of Western Zambia.

NUI Galway is looking for a qualified engineer, with suitable experience, to accompany these students on their trip to Western Zambia this summer. If you are willing to give your time and expertise to this project, then please contact Dr Jamie Goggins at or 091 492 609.

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