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Engineering students brave rural Alaska

Posted: May 5, 2012 - 8:56pm

FAIRBANKS (AP) — For a young engineer in Alaska, the Bush is often the place where brilliant ideas get trumped by reality.

Unexpected building conditions and scarce supplies in remote villages frequently force plans to be altered or scrapped altogether. Poor weather and local politics can add another layer to the mix.

With that in mind, three University of Alaska Fairbanks civil engineering students got an up-close view of village life last month, when they went on a rapid-fire trip to four communities near Bethel.

The result, said UAF student Sam Carlson, was a surprisingly strong dose of on-the-job training.

“If the goal is to get real-world experience and design a project, we did that and then some,” Carlson said.

Carlson, along with fellow students Rowland Powers and Katie Peck, encountered eroding riverbanks, a vulnerable fuel tank and a listing community center that appeared close to being condemned. Along the way they found record-high snow in Scammon Bay, an itinerary scrambled by a poor weather and some minor mechanical complications on their plane. In other words, just another week in the Bush.

“It gets them into what they’re likely to face in Alaska,” said Keith Whitaker, who teaches the senior design class at UAF. “It was eye-opening to a lot of students, even those who didn’t go to the villages.”

The trip was spurred by Paul Perreault, who spent 17 years as an engineer for the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks. Perreault said he constantly saw the same issues when he’d travel to remote churches, and wanted to introduce engineering students to those problems as part of their education.

“I wanted to bring that into the engineering department,” Perreault said.

After Perreault found suitable projects for the civil engineering students, the Diocese helped provide lodging along the way and covered some overhead costs. Mike Kelly, a pilot, former legislator and ex-member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, agreed to transport the students to the various sites by airplane.

Whitaker said students submitted resumes for the jobs, then were assigned to teams that worked together on a project. A representative from the groups traveled to the villages.

In Kotlik, an eroding riverbank is slicing about two feet off the village each year. The community recreation building in Scammon Bay has an 18-inch elevation change from one end to the other, causing everything to roll into one corner. In Newtok, community leaders are trying to figure out how to move half the buildings in town to the nearby village of Mertarvik.

In each village, students presented a plan for dealing with those engineering challenges. And in each case, the ideas they developed in Fairbanks were modified once they saw the problems in person.

“We didn’t know what we needed to know until we were already out there,” Rowland said.

Whitaker said the students’ ideas were passed on to village leaders, and may or may not be incorporated into eventual solutions. Regardless, he said, it was an invaluable experience for his students, who are scheduled to graduate in May.

“Obviously, from the university’s perspective, we want the students to learn something,” Whitaker said. “If the projects go on from here, there’s even more of a benefit.”

Whitaker said the experience was useful enough that he’d like to make it an ongoing piece of his class. He said issues with funding the trip in the future still need to be worked out, but that the benefits of the process were clear.

“I think it was a very big reality check for all of them,” he said.

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