Wednesday, January 18, 2012

OU course to prepare students to work in developing regions

Beginning in May, the University of Oklahoma will offer a field methods course designed to help prepare engineering students to work in developing regions. Coordinators hope to see other universities around the country create similar programs.

Published: January 18, 2012

NORMAN — About two years ago, members of the engineering faculty at the University of Oklahoma saw a problem.

Students attending the university's engineering school were graduating and going to work in developing countries. But in many cases, these students didn't have sufficient training to work in those environments, said David Sabatini, a professor in OU's School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science.

“You hear the stories about students who arrive in-country with the best of intentions, but are not fully prepared,” Sabatini said.

Later this year, the university plans to roll out a program it hopes will help solve that problem. Beginning in May, the school will offer a field methods course designed to help prepare students to work in those developing regions, said Sabatini, the director of OU's Water Technologies for Emerging Regions Center, or WaTER Center, a part of the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science.

The problem, he said, has been that students were leaving the university and signing up with the Peace Corps, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other nongovernmental organizations without being properly trained to work in developing countries.

When they are in that environment, those students face challenges that don't exist in the United States. They're often in remote areas and don't have access to the same resources they're used to, he said.

How they'll learn

The course will be held six hours a day during the three-week intersession in May, said Jim Chamberlain, the center's staff researcher, and most of that time will be spent in the field. The students will spend an hour to two hours in a lecture session, he said, with the rest being spent outdoors working on a number of projects.

Students will learn to build aboveground composting latrines, drill wells by hand and test for contaminants in a stream. They'll also build bio-sand filters, a type of water filtration system that uses a layer of bacteria to remove contaminants from water.

Because many of the students who participate will go on to do work related to water security and sanitation, it's especially important for them to have a sound background in water testing, as well as construction skills.

“A lot of these kids have never hammered nails before,” he said. “They've certainly never poured concrete or worked with block.”

The students also will learn to write and conduct community health surveys, Chamberlain said.

Those surveys help workers in developing areas get an idea of how people live in the area — where they get their water, for instance, and how to wash dishes. Collecting that information is critical to humanitarian efforts, he said, because it helps workers understand what communities need most.

Sabatini thinks the course is the only one of its kind in the country. Although the program is in its infancy, he said coordinators think it will be a popular offering. The course was initially intended for OU students, Sabatini said, but groups from Oklahoma State University, the University of Kansas and the University of Arkansas also have signed up to participate.

As the program progresses, Sabatini said he hopes to see more participation from other universities in the area.

Eventually, he said, he hopes to see other universities around the country develop similar programs to serve their own students.

“We can't meet the needs of every student in the United States,” Sabatini said. “But we can help pioneer a course that other institutions will choose to emulate.”

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