It Takes a Global Village: U.Va. Students Collaborate to Help Fund and Design New Schools in Uganda

May 6, 2008 — "Contagious" is perhaps the best word to describe the excitement surrounding a project to build schools for impoverished rural communities in Uganda through a partnership between the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science and its School of Architecture.

That excitement would certainly go a long way to explain why more than 700 students took turns riding stationary bikes in the pouring rain at a project fundraiser, held March 31 through April 4 on the Lawn, as muddied Irish step dancers, a cappella groups and belly dancers cheered them on.

The energy driving it all was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the voice of second-year student Meredyth Gilmore, president of the U.Va. chapter of Building Tomorrow. She proudly explained that, with the $17,610 generated by the bikers added to funds raised through a similar event last year, the organization now has more than enough to build a school in Uganda.

"Everybody's giving their time, their money, their innovation — whatever they can to help out this one community that's halfway around the world whose needs are so great," she said, crediting the support that spread like wildfire among the student body, the faculty and the local community.

Near the top of that list of supporters are the fourth-year Engineering in Context students working with Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and director of the Engineering School's international programs, and the architecture students working with assistant professor Anselmo Canfora in his "Studio reCOVER."

They've worked together since last year to design the school's physical structure and its water collection, filtration, sanitation and solar lighting systems, and they are tremendously excited by Building Tomorrow's effective and high-impact approach that pushes every dollar to its maximum use.

By partnering with the Ugandan Ministry of Education, which pays for the teachers, and working closely with the community leaders to ensure local investment in the form of donated labor, the organization builds strong consensus. That's crucial when you consider that in the Wakiso district of Uganda, where the school will go, approximately 330,000 children have no access to education.

The students are excited by the prospect of seeing their design implemented and used. Bridging the gap between academia and practice is what Studio reCOVER and Engineering in Context are all about.

Practically speaking, this means that besides drawing design schematics, students are also busy raising funds and marketing, while some are even visiting the site in Uganda to take measurements and source materials.

Getting the two design teams to work together smoothly has taken more than just crash courses in marketing and scheduling savvy. According to Elzey, that's because architects and engineers are trained to think and design in very different ways.

Elzey has already noticed his engineers adopting some of the more intuitive and aesthetic approaches of the architects. "It's been very good to have these two ways of thinking merging," he said. He explained that this joint creativity and cooperation was instrumental in making a design that met all of the project's different goals: being energy-efficient, affordable, low-maintenance, and mindful of the needs and culture of the end users.

Overcoming these design challenges together helps moves the two disciplines away from what Canfora calls a "relay mentality," where projects are just handed off to the next team, in favor of a marathon approach, where everybody runs together and reinforces each other's strengths.

The first stage of this race is quickly moving toward the finish line with construction of the U.Va.-designed schools beginning this summer. But where it will ultimately end is anyone's guess: even now there's talk of expanding the project to build more schools and get students from the Nursing, Darden and Law schools involved.

— By Matt Bierce