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 Mines graduate student project—research that got an infusion of help from a group of Mines undergraduate students.
Six students studying geological, civil, environmental and humanitarian engineering traveled to Guatemala in August 2017, 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 last January, thanks to a 10-month Fulbright grant, and worked with Mines faculty and staff to make the international engineering experience possible.
LaPorte’s work is focused on evaluating 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.
“One of the biggest things for me has been to learn how to work in another culture, the difference in time, the importance of relationships, the way things are organized and managed,” LaPorte said. “It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’m really going to take away a lot.”
So did the undergraduate students who helped 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.
A key component of Mines’ Humanitarian Engineering program is the importance of community engagement and how to utilize 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.
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 Mines’ Humanitarian Engineering program.
“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.
“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.”
For Kelly, the trip cemented his desire to find ways after graduation to use what he has learned at Mines on engineering projects that help people in a sustainable manner. “There’s no engineering project that happens in a vacuum. It affects everyone and everything around them,” said Kelly. “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.”