Emilie Rusch

In the midst of global pandemic, Mines Humanitarian Engineering continues community development work – virtually

Mines students used WhatsApp to connect with small-scale gold miners in Colombia this summer and collaboratively design solutions for the issues most important to the rural mining communities
Women miners in Colombia work on various projects

Women miners in Colombia work on the projects that they identified as important for them during the COVID-19 pandemic this summer: vertical cloth home gardens, hand sanitizer and chicken coops. (Photos courtesy of C-Innova, Colombia)

When the virus that causes COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe this spring, many humanitarian engineering programs were left scrambling and most had to cancel their international travel altogether.

Even the Peace Corps evacuated many of its volunteers – including alumni of the Mines Humanitarian Engineering program who were posted in Guinea and Tanzania.

Back in Golden, current students in the Humanitarian Engineering program were supposed to travel to Colombia this summer to conduct field work with artisanal and small-scale gold mining communities as part of the university’s $4 million National Science Foundation Partnerships in International Research and Education (PIRE) project called Responsible Mining, Resilient Communities (RMRC).

“Most humanitarian engineering programs had to cancel their activities because, plain and simple, the students couldn’t travel, airports were closed and communities could not welcome them,” said Juan Lucena, director of the Humanitarian Engineering undergraduate program. “Engineers Without Borders and many others were asking, ‘How are we going to figure this out? How are we going to be able to do community development programs during the time of COVID-19?’”

Together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab, Mines devised an innovative solution: have the PIRE students interact with the Colombian miners and students virtually using WhatsApp, the texting platform that miners use to stay connected with one another, to collaboratively design solutions for the issues most important to their rural mining communities.

“In Colombia, everyone uses WhatsApp,” Lucena said. “MIT figured out a way to move all the design thinking and Creative Capacity Building (CCB) work onto WhatsApp – facilitators, miners and students would send each other videos, voice texts, pictures and emojis on whatever they were working on to give each other feedback throughout the entire design cycle.”

Over two weeks, the Mines RMRC students interacted almost daily with Colombian miners on WhatsApp and Zoom.

Every morning began with a virtual lecture from a world expert in a topic related to artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Lecturers included Elizabeth Ferry, an anthropologist at Brandeis University who published the book “La Batea,” a visual anthropological account of artisanal gold mining in Colombia; Marcello Veiga, a world expert on eliminating the use of mercury from gold mining; and Rick Vaz, director of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Project-Based Learning, among others.

After lunch, students turned their focus to three design projects they were working on with the mining communities – improvements to the backpack that miners use to carry gold ore, remediation and reuse of mine tailings in the making of construction materials, and remediation and recirculation of the water used in gold processing plants.

At 1 p.m., it was time to connect with the miners in Colombia on Zoom or WhatsApp through MIT’s D-Lab CCB workshop to discuss their projects. The miners also brought up concerns about the food shortages being caused by the pandemic; in response, the group, which also included Colombian community-based organization C-Innova and engineering students from Universidad Nacional de Colombia, worked together to develop portable chicken coops and vertical gardens.

“Most people assume that you have to be there in person to be able to do meaningful community engagement,” Lucena said. “While there is no substitute for in-person interaction – we cannot read each other’s body language or spend time in your living environment over WhatsApp – what we showed is that something really good can still happen.”

Allison Palmer, a junior majoring in engineering with a focus on corporate sustainability, was one of the Mines students who participated in the two-week virtual program over the summer.

She worked on the ore backpack, or catanga, which miners load up with coffee sacks full of gold ore to haul out of the mine.

“If you imagine a backpack and how middle schoolers might wear it – really, really low on their backs because they think it looks cool – I think it looks a little like that,” Palmer said. “And you might know that, if you’ve ever had a backpack that has a lot of weight in it, you’re likely going to be leaning pretty far forward to counteract that weight.”

“We talked to a miner and asked where the biggest stress points are on the catangero. They said it was the shoulders and the lower part of where the catanga sits – the waist, lower back and hip area,” she said.

Having the opportunity to interact with the miners – and even watch someone demonstrate over video how a catanga is usually worn – was amazing, even with the occasional technical difficulties, she said.

“I had little moments of awe when we were working with the miners, of just ‘wow,’” Palmer said. “These people are in a completely different part of the world and we were able to chat and communicate with them in seconds. It was just incredible.”

That ability to get quick feedback and perspective on what the miners were most concerned about and thought was most important was especially helpful in further defining the problem and identifying additional improvements to and necessary testing for the current catanga prototype, she said.

“The miners are the real experts in all of this. They know what a catanga is. They know how their mine is and how it works and the temperature and humidity. They have the experience and they know how to do things that we do not,” Palmer said. “Getting their expertise and feedback on the ideas our team had and being able to partner with them was really great and very helpful to us.”

And thanks to the communication methods and relationships developed this summer, Mines students working on the PIRE project will be able to continue to interact with the miners in Colombia and make headway on the three projects throughout the fall, Lucena said.

“We’re going to try to see if we can have an in-person Creative Capacity Building workshop in the spring where we would travel,” Lucena said. “But if we can’t, we already have a proven concept and method and we hope the world of humanitarian engineering can learn from this.”

Emilie Rusch

Emilie Rusch

Director of Communications
About Mines
Colorado School of Mines is a public R1 research university focused on applied science and engineering, producing the talent, knowledge and innovations to serve industry and benefit society – all to create a more prosperous future.