Students 'engineer' help for South Dallas residents, third world nations

By John Coleman, News Editor, jpcolema@smu.edu

The rain had slowed from a thunderous downpour to a light cold autumn shower early Saturday morning. The students stepped off the bus clad in their uniform red T-shirts, all gathered in a muddy vacant lot to take in their surroundings and the task that lay before them.

Steel power-line towers dominated the landscape towering high above both the renovated and un-renovated homes of the Southeast Dallas neighborhood.

The group of mostly first-year engineering students gathered under a large oak tree, beginning to don rain ponchos as the rain to picked up again. Huddled together in between a manicured community garden and a house in desperate need of renovation, the group received instructions on how they would help change the lives of the people in the impoverished community.

The students gave up their Saturday and went out in the rain as a part of the second annual Engineering and the City program. The program was split into two parts: a community in Southeast Dallas, and a medical technology-refurbishing center.

The students that went to Dolphin Heights, the Southeast Dallas community, partnered up with non-profit BC Workshop to help weatherize residents homes and improve neighborhood infrastructure.

Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering, started the morning off by reminding students what and whom they were helping by being there.

"A lot of people wake up everyday wondering where their next meal comes from, or their mission for the day will be just to get dry," Orsak said. "We won't fix the world today, but we sure can make it a little bit better."

Kathy Hubbard, director of the center for engineering leadership, and part organizer of the event, said the Dolphin Heights program stuck with the theme Engineering and the City stands for.

"Our theme has been that we want students to see engineering activism," Hubbard said. "They needed to see that poverty exists both globally and locally, and they can use their knowledge and skills to help."

The students broke up into smaller groups, seen as roving clusters of poncho plastic moving from house to house and throughout the neighborhood. Each student group had separate tasks to accomplish throughout the neighborhood, such as analyzing the infrastructure and street conditions, others went from home to home looking for ways to weatherize the buildings and help residents save costs.

"I felt like this was a great opportunity for me to bond with my fellow engineering students as well as apply things that I have learned in lecture and labs to real life situations," sophomore mechanical engineer Nick Bastoni said. "I felt like we made a real impact in the Dolphin Heights community, and I believe that the work that we did will go a long way."

Helping the Dolphin Heights residents was much more gratifying than many students expected.

Bastoni recalled speaking with a gentleman who lived right next to a Schepp's factory. The resident informed him how the factory remained active all hours into the night and often attracted rodents. He said the resident was very grateful for just taking the time to listen to his previously unheard complaints.

Carson Linstead, another engineering student, was completely gratified recalling the woman who hugged her and thanked her for taking the time to try and help her. Linstead said she could tell the woman "was finally able to picture a comfortable and happy life for herself and her family."

While many of the mechanical, civil and environmental engineering first-year students were working with the residents of Dolphin Heights, electrical engineering and computer science students took on helping Third World nations to obtain functional medical equipment through the non-profit MediSend International.

According to computer science professor Mark Fontenot, the students sorted large pallets of medical equipment ranging from tracheotomy kits to hospital gowns, They spent two hours sorting the supplies for the biomedical techs.

Knowing the work he was doing helped save lives made the day worth it for Fontenot.

"The most gratifying aspect of the work was to know that we were directly positively influencing the health and wellbeing of another human," Fontenot said. "The work that MediSend directly participates in saves lives on a daily basis. To know that you are part of that mission, even in some small way, is truly moving and gratifying."