BUFFALO, N.Y. — A senior class project for Jerome O’Connor’s students is counting for much more than a final grade; it’s giving them real world experience and a chance to help people in need. O’Connor, a structural and earthquake engineer at the University at Buffalo, asked his students to design a footbridge across one of the many ravines in rural southeast Kenya. During the rainy season, these ravines become impassible and prevent access to education, economic development and healthcare. The ravines have caused over 6,000 deaths in the last 10 years, according to Bridging the Gap Africa (www.bridgingthegapafrica.org), a nonprofit that has built 48 pedestrian footbridges in Kenya.

UB partnered with the organization to help improve people’s lives while giving students some practical experience.

“I decided if the students were going to go through all the trouble to design something, it may as well be something that will actually be built and provide a benefit to people,” said O’Connor, adjunct professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

After doing an environmental impact assessment, the students — 24 total working in teams of six — designed a “suspended” or hanging bridge made of donated steel cables that are supported by steel towers. (View a photo of the bridge at www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2013/07/011.html.)

An experienced welder in Kenya will fabricate the towers and most of the bridge materials will be sourced from within 100 miles of where it will be built. A typical bridge will span 130 to 200 feet and have a 3.2-foot-wide walkway made of eucalyptus wood.

The students are raising money to buy materials needed for the bridge, which will cost about $20,000. Additional funds are needed for students who will travel to Africa to help build their design.

O’Connor, who also manages UB’s bridge engineering program and works for MCEER, the university’s earthquake and extreme events research center, came up with the idea after speaking with Kelly Rehm, a member of the board of directors for Bridging the Gap Africa, at a meeting of bridge engineers. O’Connor inquired how UB could support their efforts. The conversation led to the formation of O’Connor’s curriculum. He also offered his students the option to attend the Seventh National Seismic Conference on Bridges (7NSC) to assist him in setting up and running the conference in Oakland, Calif.

“I felt this was both an enriching and rewarding experience,” said Garrett Miller, a student who helped design the bridge. “I gained priceless information relative to the up-and-coming research, technologies, and governmental policies that will be used in the future of civil engineering,” said Miller, who received a bachelor’s of science degree in civil engineering in May and will return to UB this fall to pursue a master’s degree.

Although the upcoming task is daunting, the students feel they already achieved a significant victory by their teamwork. “When practicing engineering, we need to capitalize on everyone’s strengths in order to excel as a team. Different personalities, cultural perspectives, and technical skills help the team arrive at a better solution than any one person would be capable of,” O’Connor said.

Donate money to support their efforts at http://bit.ly/18KYQ1z.