Incorporating culture into engineering

Two faculty members are smiling to the camera


How does culture influence engineering design? Two seniors in civil engineering tell about how they incorporated their research on the culture of Ethiopia into the design of a housing structure, an irrigation system, and a restroom.

Season number
Season 6
Episode number

ROBERTSON: Every year in May the College of Engineering at Oregon State University hosts our biggest event -- Engineering Expo -- which showcases undergraduate senior design capstone projects.

Picture school kids, parents, engineers, researchers, all coming to check out the amazing projects our seniors have worked all year to create. And yes, there are robots, and rockets and gadgets and gizmos.This year it happens on May 18 and there will be 845 students presenting 245 different group projects to over 2,000 visitors. To give you an idea of what it’s like, here is some audio of students presenting at past Expos.

CLIP 1: My project is the automatic electronic bike shifter. So, this project can automatically..

CLIP 2: My project is the stroboscopic inkjet drop watcher and what it does is take pictures of inkjet drops …

CLIP 3: We are the percussion pants project. We made drum pants for our senior project …

CLIP 4: It’s a small device that notifies the user view email or text when mail arrives in their mailbox, or when packages arrive on their doorstep.

[MUSIC: "The Ether Bunny," Eyes Closed Audio, used with permissions of a Creative Commons Attribution License.]

NARRATOR: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.

ROBERTSON: As you can hear from those clips there are a variety of really cool projects presented at Expo. Come on by if you can. On today’s podcast I’ll be talking to two students who will be be presenting their project at Expo on something you may not have expected. In a place you may not have expected.

GAVIN BENNETT: Gondar, Ethiopia is one of Corvallis’ sister cities. And the overall scope of the project is just to improve a nursery that Corvallis Sister Cities works with and there is a school, or a village school, that they also work with as well. And it’s just, like, improvements for quality of life over in both of those areas.

ROBERTSON: That was Gavin Bennett, a senior in civil engineering at Oregon State. And as Gavin said, there are two locations for the project. The nursery he was talking about is a plant nursery. Specifically, Woleka Nursery which raises tree seedlings for watershed restoration in the Angereb River Watershed. For the nursery they are designing an irrigation system and a housing structure. The village school is about 15 kilometers outside Gondar and for that location they are designing a restroom.

Amy Salisbury, Daniel Casebier and Austin Sittel, all undergraduates in civil engineering, also worked on the project. Here’s Amy to tell us about the projects at the nursery.

AMY SALISBURY: So, the nursery is located on a cliff, a river is right below it, so we have to find a way to pump the water from the river, store it at the nursery so that they can irrigate it to their seedlings, and then also build a temporary housing structure for the workers there for six months out of the year because they work, I think they walk about 10 miles a day.

BENNETT: Yeah, about 9 or 10 miles. I think it's one way, too, isn't it?



ROBERTSON: That’s a long commute by foot. And since the nursery does not have a pump, the workers hike down the cliff to the river with buckets, fill their buckets and then hike back up the cliff and dump the water in holes in the ground for storage. The seedlings need about 3,200 gallons of water a day.

[SOUND EFFECTS: Footsteps in leaves,  River - Running water 2, Water pouring, A used with permission of Creative Commons Public Domain.]

So, now that we understand the issues they are facing at the nursery, let’s talk about the village school which is outside of Gondar in Sabia Siana.

SALISBURY: There is currently no restroom whatsoever and it serves 1,200 students all ranging from kindergarten ages through high school, many of which the young children are actually blind. And so the whole point with that is not only to help out the students there but to also start a culture shift. There's no restroom culture in Gondar, Ethiopia and starting it out young with the students and making a successful project out of it helps to extend that reach beyond to the community.

ROBERTSON: What Amy means by no restroom culture is that people go in open fields or behind bushes. So that’s why constructing a bathroom at the school would help to create a culture shift for the village.

[MUSIC: “Wishful Thinking,” by Dan Lebowitz, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

The way these senior design projects work is that the students pick their top choices for a project and then the instructor forms the teams based on all the students choices and skills. So, I wanted to know why Amy and Gavin picked this particular project to work on.

SALISBURY: Instantly, when I looked through the project list, I thought okay this is the coolest project, this is the most brag-worthy project, this is something I want to talk to people about and tell people about, and something I would feel really proud that I worked on. I don't know how many opportunities I'll get to actually work on a real project in Ethiopia and a lot of the other projects were local projects that I could see myself visibly working in the future on. So I figured why not try something completely different and unique?

ROBERTSON (from interview): Okay, how about for you?

BENNETT: Yeah, it's definitely a unique project in a unique area. The thing that drew me to towards it mostly was at the nursery -- we were supposed do a water project and I really like water resources and any engineering projects with water so that was the main draw for me was, “Oh, a chance to work on some water work.”

ROBERTSON: Working on a project far away from Corvallis was not only cool and exciting, but it has also presented some challenges.

SALISBURY: I knew we would have to initially do some research but I think we definitely did a lot more research than we ever expected or intended to. Especially because our mentors assigned to us, they probably had as much information as we did. They've been to the site and they visited with the people and they've talked with the people, so they could tell us a little bit about that. But when it came to the specifics of like rainfall data in that area, or what type of wood we can use, or what the soil is like we had to research all of that and make assumptions or follow similar areas like geographical locations or similar cultures to reach the assumptions that we've made.

ROBERTSON: The lengths they went to to research their topic was pretty impressive, including doing an experiment to determine how much water they would need per day for the tree seedlings.

SALISBURY: We received information about the seedlings and what type of trees there are, and how many seedlings there are, which there's about 200,000 seedlings at the nursery at any given time. But there was no real information on how much water they would need each day. There's information if you want to look up traditional books. There's tons of information on how much a tree would need of that type, but not in the seedlings, so essentially what one our teammates did is, he took a sample of soil in Corvallis that was the same kind of makeup as the soil that the seedlings are placed in. And then he ran some tests in the lab to figure out the saturation capacity, and kind of used that saturation capacity to estimate that would be about how much water it would need every day. And so, that's where we got the total amount of water that we'll need for the nursery each day.

ROBERTSON: That teammate was Austin Sittel, but they all contributed to the research to help inform the design of their projects. And they relied on feedback from engineers in industry who met with them throughout the year to get advice on their project. In some cases, they changed their design based on the feedback they received.

SALISBURY: Originally, we were going to put a pump in the river and after a lot of feedback, especially because the river changes throughout the year and there's definitely dry seasons, we're going with a well and just driving it down to the water table.

BENNETT: Yeah, that was some feedback we received from our capstone panel, was that it may be a better solution to implement a well, rather than pump it from the river.

ROBERTSON: And what was the issue with the river?

BENNETT: They're afraid that it's going to meander and then our pump location is just not going to receive any water, so...

SALISBURY: Yeah, and then, in general, also engineering principles as well, depending on the exact, like um, how much horizontal distance, how far away the river is from the location that we're pumping could cause a lot of issues. And it makes way more sense to just go straight down with the well.

ROBERTSON: Rather than holes in the ground to store the water once it is pumped from the well, the group is designing a detention pond. The location of the nursery is pretty remote which is why an electric or gas powered pump was not an option. The remote location has also created some issues for materials they could use for the housing structure which they are designing for the female workers to live in during the busy season, so they don’t have to commute the 10 miles each way.                                                                                                                                 

SALISBURY: Right now I'm doing research on materials for the housing structure, which is really -- I mean, most structures in that area are really just built out of mud or sticks, and a thatched roof. Which, obviously we could go with, but we also want this to be a long-term, lasting facility, so trying to find that balance between local, inexpensive materials, but also something that will really withstand the weather and will be comfortable for them to live in and be a lasting structure has kind of been a challenge.

[MUSIC: “Easy Lemon 60 Second” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]

I think we're going to go with a mud-block design called adobe brick, with a wood and corrugated metal roofing. And then another interesting aspect is also, like, the culture around how we're actually going to build it, the inside of the structure. We're trying to figure out if it's necessary for us to build partitions or separate rooms. If we're building separate rooms, there's way more codes for us to follow because each room has to be a certain size. But we're not sure yet if it makes more sense to just have one big open structure, if they're comfortable with a situation like that, if that's what they like or don't like.

ROBERTSON: I’ll admit it. I had no idea that researching the culture of the place you are building in would be part of civil engineering. But it makes sense, you want what you are building to be accepted. It turns out that understanding the culture of Ethiopia was also an issue for the bathroom they are designing for the school. Which you may remember is for 1,200 students. Since there is no plumbing or waste treatment currently on site, that has to be part of their plan as well.

SALISBURY: So, I really dove into the culture around bathroom use. If they used a composting toilet, what kind of composting toilet have they use before? What do they like? Do they like sitting or squatting facilities? Do they have the knowledge to compost?

ROBERTSON (from interview):  How did you incorporate what you learned about how they deal with restrooms, how did you incorporate into that your design?

SALISBURY: Right, so there's a lot of specific points, one specifically that I think stood out the most is that I found a study that focused on different types of composting toilets in refugee camps in Ethiopia. And one note that, when deciding between a composting toilet the biggest decision you have to make is whether you want a combined system where all waste goes into the the same location or a urine or liquid diverting composting system. And there is a lot of good arguments for both, mainly focused on the actual composting process.

ROBERTSON: I'm going to jump in real quick just to let you know that Amy discusses a traditional practice of Ethiopian culture that affects bathroom use which could be disturbing for some folks, so you may want to skip ahead about 30 seconds.

SALISBURY: But what I found through the study at the refugee camp is that women who had experienced female genital mutilation had a really difficult time using the urine diverting system and that's something that is really apparent, especially in rural areas of Ethiopia and so something specific like that no one would have brought that up -- a mentor or an engineer wouldn't have brought that up in class. So that definitely took some digging to find and I never would have expected to find it. But little things like that kind of thinking about people that are in a completely different culture.

[MUSIC: “Mallard,” by Chad Crouch, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

ROBERTSON: You might be getting the feeling now for why they ended up doing way more research than expected. Even the basics of materials and design for the bathroom became  a research wormhole.

BENNETT:  So, I've been mainly working on the design of the structure itself and, so, one of the first things was, “Well, what materials do we even have to work with over there?” And I knew they grew lot of eucalyptus over there. So, all right, let's see how much is grown over there and if it's processed at all. And that took a lot of research. I gained a lot of knowledge on Ethiopian timber trade as a result of this project. It turns out they do not process eucalyptus over there and they import a lot of wood for a lot of their construction which is something they've been doing for a while now. And also since we're trying to make this accessible for blind students, I’ve been delving deep into ADA standards and guidelines and been using what they recommend for our restroom design.

ROBERTSON: After all that research, they now have a working design for the bathroom project.

BENNETT:  We're basing our design off a design that was already done. It was a design that was done I think it was after the earthquake in Haiti wasn't it?

SALISBURY:  Yeah, after the Amurt School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

BENNETT: Yeah, and what they did is they basically put four stalls on a platform and there is a receptacle underneath the platform to collect waste and that waste goes to into a composting toilet. So we kind of adapted that design to meet ADA standard and sized it correctly and instead of being four, we have six stalls per structure for our facility. So ...

SALISBURY:  Yeah, so we definitely wanted to go with the most simplest and low impact on resource design that we could possibly. So, it's a combined composting system. The stall looks a little bit more modern with a traditional toilet seat and all that good stuff and then we keep all the  compost and the waste underneath the facility just so people can maintain that. And then they'll be dumping that into compost bins, mixing it with dry cover materials and they'll be able to use it as compost. And we also are designing hand-washing station that directly follows an existing design called a press tap. And essentially it's just gallons of water hanging from a post and then you just step on a foot lever and it squeezes the container and water comes out. So pretty simple, we didn't want to do anything that involved plumbing of complex systems. We wanted it to be really easy to maintain and potentially build in other locations on their own.

ROBERTSON: For Amy and Gavin the knowledge they had gained on everything from facts about Ethiopia, to how to work with wood, to how to apply engineering principles they have learned in classes has made this project a great opportunity for learning. But there was something extra special about it for them.

SALISBURY: I also like that by nature the project has a lot of humanitarian engineering involved with it. Even though everything comes down to in the end were still looking at basic civil engineering principles -- to build the structures, to plan the site, to build the stormwater infrastructure -- but everything that we do has to also incorporate the culture and the society. And I really like that, and that's not something that you definitely, you don't see that in your normal classes.

BENNETT: Pretty much every choice has been a pretty meaningful choice not only following engineering principles but how do we best serve these kids. Just a lot of meaningful choices and decision-making that goes into this.

ROBERTSON: And in the end they could both see the value of their experience for preparing them for working in engineering in the near future.

SALISBURY: I hear from every... nearly every professor I've ever had is that within the first couple of years of them working at some point somebody gave them a project that they knew nothing about and they just had to figure it out. So it's kind of to get you used to that and also I would say working in a team setting. We work in smaller dynamics and other classes we work on small projects and do presentations and stuff but this is such a wider scope than any other team or group project that I've ever worked on in college. So it gets you ready too for that dynamic in the work world.

BENNETT: Yeah, it definitely develops a lot of the non-technical skills that are involved with engineering. I was talking about this with a friend we came to the conclusion that this is more like a communications course just with an engineering skin on top of it, you know. So developing those soft skills and communication skills and like in our case a lot of research skills. [laughs]

ROBERTSON: And both admit that it was pretty overwhelming at the beginning but as the year went on they really began to enjoy the class.

BENNETT: As soon as you start get in the groove of things and working with the team and having those discussions and start developing plans and sheets, start developing those deliverables. It’s like, “Wow, we’re actually doing it!” [laughs] It’s a little sense of pride there, like, “Yes, we took this overwhelming situation and got a hold of it and made something out of it.” So, very much overall a positive experience.

ROBERTSON (from interview): You know, I was just thinking also you've been a student most of your life and as a student you're supposed to know the right answer and here it's totally different. You have to make the answer up and there is no right answer.

SALISBURY: Yeah, yeah I mean even when… of course we turn in engineering drawings every couple of weeks to the TAs and professors, but we presented the final package that we had so far of engineering drawings to the engineers at our presentation last term in the last week of term. And at first I'm, like, okay there's no way these drawings look professional or real, there is no way. And they're flipping through it and they are like, “Wow this is amazing.” And it totally is,  it's really reassuring to hear.

BENNETT: Yeah that was very awesome to hear them be like, “These look like real engineering drawings.” And we're like, “All right, that's what we're going for!”

[MUSIC: “Harps Uplifting” by Mortal Thing used with permission of the artist.]

ROBERTSON: Both Gavin and Amy have plans after they graduate. Gavin already has a job offer from a Portland consulting firm that specializes is transportation and water infrastructure, which was an opportunity that developed from an internship. Amy has plans to stay at Oregon State for graduate school.

SALISBURY: I'm just so not ready to leave Corvallis, and I feel really invested and settled here, especially with Oregon State, and I love the campus, and I love the school, and I love all the professors I’ve worked with. And I feel like I've developed such a relationship here that I'm so not ready to end, so that's mostly why I'm pursuing grad school here.

[MUSIC: “Washed Away,” by Duncan Robertson used with permission of the artist.]

ROBERTSON: That’s it, my friends, our last podcast of the school year. We had a lot of fun telling the stories of our students this season. You can meet Amy and Gavin on May 18 who will be hanging out by the Group 8 poster during Expo.

This episode was produced and hosted by me, Rachel Robertson. Audio magic was performed by Brian Blythe. Our intro music is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud and used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. Other music and effects in this episode were also used with appropriate licenses. We’ve had lots of contributions from students for our music this season. Check them out in the show notes along with other bonus material at