Environmental Engineering: Cleaning Up de facto Dumps in Bolivia
Heather Wright, 22, a fifth-year senior from Milford, Michigan, knows what she's talking about when she avows that a Michigan Tech education is a cut above the ordinary.
Wright has traveled to Perth, Australia, and Logan, Utah, as an exchange student. As part of an International Senior Design project, she also traveled to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to work with indigenous people in the barrios of that city, population one million.
Each trip was an eye-opener. Her studies in Australia and Utah showed her that Michigan Tech has both "higher standards" and "higher expectations" for its students. But her research and field work in Bolivia illustrated how practical a Tech education is—and how she can make a difference in the world with her major in environmental engineering and her minor in ecology.
Her work in Bolivia was one of the highlights of her years at Tech, giving her the opportunity for undergraduate research.
Wright had a thorny problem to tackle in Santa Cruz—curichis. These are remnants of industrial excavations of clay for the brick industry. Exhausted and abandoned, the depressions fill with runoff—and refuse. The curichis are scattered around the city, and the one where she worked covered fifty acres, up to seven feet deep in some locations. "We went there to look at what we could do with this space," she says of the venture. "They pose serious health and social problems." These include disease and contamination of the city's drinking water.
Wright and another Tech undergrad comprised one of four teams of students who went to Santa Cruz to do fieldwork at the request of the mayor. They met with other city officials, barrio presidents, engineers, and residents—"kind of everyone." Her trip and work were coordinated by Linda Phillips, department lecturer.
Two weeks of intense work in Bolivia were sandwiched between a summer to prepare for the venture and another two months back on campus to pull together their recommended prescriptions.
Their remedy had to be sustainable and affordable, address social and political issues, and take into account environmental and health concerns, as well as appropriate technology. Wright and her partner had a phased plan:
* Educate locals about the hazards of burning refuse and using the curichis as garbage dumps.
* Clean up the sites.
* Recycle some of the waste, such as construction materials, and bring the remainder to "ultimate disposal" areas.
* Use proceeds from the recycling to help pay for the cleanup.
* Start a composting initiative and plant gardens for economic stimulation.
* Use the spiffed-up areas for green space, parks, and natural areas.
Back on campus, a Tech Spanish class is translating the report, which Wright plans to enter in an EPA sustainability competition that might earn money to help implement the recommendations.
In the meantime, she continues her work on campus environmental sustainability initiatives, including Earth Week and Green Exchange, the latter a campus recycling effort.
When Wright was studying in Perth, she was impressed by the friendly people and astonished by the area's expansive desert, which she describes as "a vastness of nothing." Back in Houghton, she might describe Michigan Tech as a vastness of opportunity because of programs like undergraduate research. For, she says about her efforts, "We learn things you are actually going to do out on the job."