Students get on-the-ground experience in Guatemala

Landslide risk is a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans residing in settlements on the slopes of steep ravines. 

How well the available tools, techniques and programs manage that risk is the subject of a Colorado School of Mines graduate student project—research that got an infusion of help from a group of Mines undergraduate students earlier this year. 

Six undergraduate students studying geological, civil, environmental and humanitarian engineering traveled to Guatemala for two weeks in August, helping conduct field interviews in impacted communities and analyzing data at the local university, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in Guatemala City.

Mines graduate student David LaPorte has been in Guatemala since January, thanks to a 10-month Fulbright grant, and worked with Mines faculty and staff back in Golden to make the international engineering experience possible. 

“We can build retaining walls all day but if people don’t change their behaviors, their risk won’t be lowered—that was a big component of the trip, giving undergrads the opportunity to come and see this, what engineering looks like on the ground, especially in another country,” LaPorte said.

A master’s candidate in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, LaPorte’s work is focused on evaluating the current landslide risk management initiatives put in place by the Guatemalan government and NGOs. That has meant a lot of field work, talking with local residents and stakeholders to better understand how they perceive risk.

“It’s been challenging and rewarding in a lot of different ways,” LaPorte said. “One of the biggest things for me has been to just learn how to work in another culture, the difference in time, the importance of relationships, the way things are organized and managed. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’m really going to take away a lot.”

So did the undergraduate students who traveled to Guatemala to help with the research. 

“I can’t stress enough how great of a trip it was and how wonderful it was to see an actual connection, a tangible connection between engineering and humanitarian work,” said Vy Duong, a junior studying civil and humanitarian engineering and a 2016-2017 Shultz Scholar

A key component of Mines’ Humanitarian Engineering program is the importance of community engagement and how to do it in a meaningful way as part of engineering projects. While in Guatemala, the students spent five days in the field, conducting interviews and meeting with residents of three different communities. Another five days were spent at the local university, analyzing data and building landslide susceptibility maps. Students also got to hike an active volcano and visit the historic town of Antigua.

One thing the students didn’t do during their trip is build something.

“Our goal wasn’t immediately tangible. Our goal was to help them help themselves in the coming years and help the different organizations work together,” said Matt Kelly, a junior studying geological engineering. “It was hard not getting to say, ‘Oh, I built that retaining wall and those five homes are good.’ But what we did in the end was much more helpful.”

That difference was part of the appeal of sending students to Guatemala, said Juan Lucena, professor and director of the Humanitarian Engineering program, located in the Engineering, Design and Society Division at Mines. He also serves as one of LaPorte’s research advisors.

“Different than the more popular humanitarian engineering projects where students build gadgets—water pumps, bridges, wheelchairs, etc.—this project was about applying risk mitigation research on vulnerable communities in Guatemala,” Lucena said. “This shows that humanitarian principles and criteria can also guide engineering research and its application.” 

A central part of LaPorte’s project is working out how to package science in a way that can be used by the local population, and tracking and improving how they actually use it, said Paul Santi, professor of geology and geological engineering and LaPorte’s faculty advisor. 

LaPorte’s efforts also build on the work of Mines graduate Ethan Faber MS’16. As a geology and geological engineering master’s student, Faber developed a landslide risk evaluation tool that helps Guatemalan residents quantify their own vulnerability, working with in-country advisor Edy Manolo Barillas-Cruz, MS ’06, a Guatemalan native who returned to his country after graduation to become the national risk advisor.

“Our earlier work in Guatemala City focused on developing and validating methods of mitigation that those in poor communities could actually implement with limited means,” Santi said. “David’s goal is to figure out if people are actually doing this, why or why not, and how to best educate and encourage them to take appropriate actions to reduce landslide risk to their homes.” 

Two of the students who traveled to Guatemala were sponsored by the Colorado-Wyoming Alliance for Minority Participation, of which Mines is a member. The alliance’s mission is to increase the number of historically and currently underrepresented African American, Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Alaska Native students earning bachelor's degrees in the STEM fields. Another received funding from the Shultz Family Leadership in Humanitarian Engineering Fund.  

Duong, who has been involved with Mines Without Borders since her freshman year, said the field interviews in particular were a great learning experience that built on her coursework in humanitarian engineering. 

“I learned a lot from these interviews and I was always surprised by what I learned,” Duong said. “The community members, they have a feeling of when a landslide is going to happen—all these things we learn in theory, we have all the scientific backing for why it happens, but it’s not like these people without the formal education don’t know the signs.”

For Kelly, the trip really cemented his desire to find ways after graduation to use what he has learned at Mines to do engineering projects that really help people in a sustainable manner. He’s also hoping to become fluent in Spanish. 

“There's no engineering project that happens in a vacuum. It affects everyone and everything around them,” said Kelly, an Army veteran. “Now that I have real-world experience being in another country, examining landslide hazards and risk assessment, it will help me with future courses and future employment.”

Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 |
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 |

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