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Reservation Gets Help From Engineering Students


The University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a nonprofit organization that designs and implements sustainable engineering projects for communities, has embarked on a project to assist the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, its  first long-term domestic project, said UW-Madison in a recent news release.

“Working closely with a Wisconsin community is as important as working in an exotic foreign location,” said Alison Sanders, a civil and environmental graduate student. “We’re also getting a valuable experience in learning federal engineering design codes, as well as learning the reservation’s own laws.”

Sanders and Matthew McLaughlin are project co-managers, working with Gavin Weir, a mechanical engineering undergraduate; David Blodgett, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student, and Kenneth Potter, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.  The group met with Tim Funk, tribal planner for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and tribal members from Aug. 1-4 to begin three projects related to flooding and storm water infrastructure. The projects are long term, since EWB requires its chapters to commit to a community for at least five years.

“I’m very appreciative of the effort and attitude of the group,” Funk says. “Beyond the practical help, I’m looking forward to the energy, enthusiasm and inspiration of the UW-Madison EWB chapter.”

“Many Native American communities were decades behind comparably sized non-Indian communities in terms of basic water and sewer infrastructure,” Funk added.  “Generally, quality of life in some parts of the reservation is not as good as it could be, and we hope EWB can help the tribe develop creative, low-cost solutions.”

The Red Cliff reservation wraps around the northernmost peninsula of mainland Wisconsin, where dry land suitable for development is often scarce.  One task for UW-Madison EWB will be to find a practical way to prevent flooding in a new community cemetery, downhill from a wetland. EWB members will evaluate plans to redirect water away from the site and seek a practical solution. Funk hopes the students can design a storm-water-management system for the new development, and the students plan to return in the fall to survey the site after the leaves have fallen.

“We are really excited to be working with the Red Cliff Tribe,” says Sanders. “Not only is it a great learning experience for student engineers to apply their knowledge to real-world problems, but this collaboration provides a unique personal experience and cultural awareness.” 

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