These UT students use classwork to make life better around the world

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Engineering students are putting their educations to use before they leave the University of Texas at Austin, drawing up plans and making arrangements to build systems to improve lives around the world.

The students are part of a class at UT Austin called Projects with Underserved Communities, or PUC. Started in 2010, the yearlong course breaks students into groups to come up with ideas to help marginalized and disadvantaged communities, and then go to those areas to implement their ideas.

This year, four groups of students are planning projects in India, Thailand and Mexico. 

“This is really cheesy, but I really want to make a difference with my civil engineering degree,” said Michael Ramirez, assistant project manager for Team India. 

Ramirez’s seven-student group is planning to build an education and community center for a marginalized tribe in southern India. “They don’t have very good access to public education,” Ramirez said.

The team raised more than $16,000 for the project so far, but the scope of work has ballooned over the course of the class as students learned more about what the tribe needed. The group needs to raise another $10,000 to finish the entire project when they head to India after graduation this May.

“It’s one of the biggest projects PUC has ever done,” project logistics manager Zia Lyle said. “Our building is 40-by-20-feet, and so we’re really trying to accomplish this kind of insane task.”

Donations to the project can be made on the group’s HornRaiser fundraising page here.

Two of the other groups in the class are headed to Thailand for their projects, one to build a kitchen at a school where students might be getting their only meal of the day, and the other to build a water filtration system for an elementary school. The fourth group will go to Oaxaca in Mexico to help refine the process of producing mesquite flour, a primary economic opportunity for people there.

Over the last decade, groups have worked with local partners to implement their projects in ten different countries, improving the lives of some 18,300 people, according to UT’s International Office. 

“The work that I’m doing is actually real,” Victor Butcher, Team India’s technical manager, said. “It’s going to happen.”

Students told KXAN they appreciate the class because it’s a chance to use the skills they’ve learned in a practical setting, and it’s one that helps people.

“As long as this project is safely executed and people truly enjoy it, that is the best thing I can ask for,” Ayah Alomari, the team’s logistics manager, said.

The students will graduate at the end of May, and right after that they’ll head to their respective project sites and get to work over the summer. There’s still a lot of work to do before that happens, but Ramirez is excited to see it come to fruition.

“They really need this community center,” Ramirez said, “and by using our engineering skills, we can actually bring that to reality, the things that they need.”

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