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South African study abroad trip opens new doors for MU, African students

Civil engineering senior Geordan Lightfoot Smith (right) works with high school students at Bellville South High School in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Marty Walker

In a South African classroom built during Apartheid, where metal bars slide across doorways, high school students who normally filled seats were out for winter break. But for a group of students at Bellville South High School near Cape Town, a chance to work with University of Missouri engineering students was the perfect way to spend some of their time off. It not only gave them an insight into engineering, but also into another culture.

As part of their Mizzou Engineering study abroad trip to South Africa from June 13 to 29, eight engineering students and two staff members spent three days of the volunteering with 28 Bellville students at an engineering experience. The project began in January when the MU students who registered for the study abroad course split into four teams of two and began structuring a lesson plan to teach while abroad.

“We had to come up with presentations, and it was agreed upon that we would cover the different disciplines of engineering,” said Geordan Lightfoot Smith, a senior civil engineering major. He and his team created an activity that focused on electromagnetism. MU students also gave presentations introducing themselves, and talking about how they were drawn to engineering.

The high school students were split among the four teams and spent the first two days learning different principles from each activity. On the third day, students got hands-on experience building vehicles and rebuilding disposable cameras among others. The MU students recognized participants with awards and received praise in return.

“At the end, the high school students surprised us, and three or four students gave a speech on what the class meant to them,” said JR Swanegan, MU Engineering’s study abroad director.

Director of Administrative Services Marty Walker, who also accompanied the MU students, said he had been to Africa before and had suggested South Africa as a destination.

“The students on this trip wanted to do something different than what their peers were doing on other trips,” Walker said. “I’d previously worked with the University of Western Cape. I contacted them, and they sought out a school that was willing to work with us.”

This excursion was designed to offer students cultural, professional and academic experiences. During the first days of the trip, the students traveled to Kruger National Park in Eastern South Africa, where they went on a safari.

“They got to see what most people think of when they think of Africa,” Walker said.

Walker and the students also toured the Kusile Power Station, an under-construction, supercritical, coal-fired power station located about 80 miles east of Johannesburg. U.S.-based Black & Veatch was hired to provide engineering management, consulting, planning, design and more to the project. The visit also enabled the students to meet two MU Engineering alumni, Jerry Widmer and Chioma “Lucky” Nwonwu, Black & Veatch employees who are working on the project.

“It showed students what they might do if they worked for a company that has an international presence,” Walker said.

Overall, students from both schools said they had a rewarding experience as a result of the MU Engineering trip.

“The high school was very pleased and has asked us to come back,” Walker said.

Lightfoot Smith said he also reaped benefits from the experience saying it was a good learning experience from the perspective of an American college student.

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