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Meet Chad Norvell
Meet Chad Norvell

Many students are motivated by a desire to change the world, but most aren’t quite sure how to do so in a concrete way while pursuing their degree. Chad Norvell’s experience at the Maseeh College is a perfect example of how one student is changing the world while completing his degree, having fun, and gaining valuable hands-on professional experience at the same time.

Originally an architecture student, Chad switched to Civil Engineering and joined the PSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) USA a few years ago when he was just beginning to study the engineering curriculum. According to the organization’s website, EWB-USA is a non-profit humanitarian organization that “supports community-driven development programs worldwide by collaborating with local partners to design and implement sustainable engineering projects, while creating transformative experiences and responsible leaders.” EWB-USA has more than 180 university chapters across the United States, including one at PSU. 

An extremely active member of the EWB-USA PSU chapter, as an undergraduate Chad traveled to Nicaragua 5 times to work on water and sanitation projects and served as the President of the EWB-USA PSU chapter for 2 years. During his senior year, Chad was recognized by EWB-USA with the 2012 Student Founders Award for his outstanding leadership and for embracing the vision and advancing the mission of the organization.

When he originally joined EWB, Chad was interested in building a bridge. The PSU chapter of EWB-USA, however, has historically focused on clean water and sanitation projects. Chad relishes his experiences as a member of the PSU chapter of EWB-USA, but the desire to build a bridge persisted. Thanks to the non-profit organization Bridges to Prosperity and PSU’s requirement for all seniors to do a Capstone project, Chad now has the opportunity to do so.

Bridges to Prosperity is an organization that builds footbridges for isolated communities in the developing world. Chad was introduced to Bridges to Prosperity by Evan Thomas, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Professor Thomas, who founded and directs the SWEET Lab in the Maseeh College, serves as one of two faculty advisors to the PSU chapter of EWB-USA and his research interests include international sustainable development. Professor Thomas went to graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder with the current Executive Director of Bridges to Prosperity, Avery Bang.

The PSU Senior Capstone takes students out of the classroom and into the field to apply what they have learned over the course of their undergraduate studies to a community project. Working with Bridges to Prosperity to fulfill his senior Capstone requirement seemed like a great idea to Chad for two reasons: first, for his Capstone, he wished to build a bridge that could be used, which seemed unlikely to happen in the United States; second, the idea appealed to Chad because of his desire to help change the world. Footbridges in the US have mainly recreational uses, but footbridges in developing countries are critical to people’s livelihoods and grant people access to services, such as healthcare and education, they might not otherwise be able to receive.

Chad and Peter Kahn, another Civil and Environmental Engineering student,  started talking to Bridges to Prosperity about collaborating on a Capstone project the fall of their senior year. Peter had worked with Bridges to Prosperity before in Ethiopia and has started a PSU chapter of the organization.

CEE students Betsy Gillard, Richard Glade, Marshall Stokes, and Esther Kaplan joined Chad and Peter on the project winter quarter when their Capstone began. Bridges to Prosperity originally proposed a bridge building project in Bolivia, but the timing wasn’t right for the PSU students so the possibility of Nicaragua came up. Like Chad, two of the other students on the Capstone team are also members of EWB-USA, had been to Nicaragua before, and were eager to return.

Chad, Betsy, and Esther visited the site over spring break. Located in the Department of Matagalpa in a mountainous area a 3-hour drive from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, the site is a deep rocky gorge. It is a 15 meter drop from the cliff’s edge to the water below. At the height of the rainy season, which runs between June and October, the water level gets so high it tops the edge of the gorge. The site previously had a footbridge until floods wiped it out in October 2011, cutting off two communities on the north side of the river (called the Rio Grande de Matagalpa) from the schools, healthcare clinics, and markets located on the south side.

With the help of volunteer professional engineers from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the PSU students are modeling their bridge on a suspended bridge design provided by Bridges to Prosperity. The six students will fulfill their Capstone requirement by submitting drawings of the bridge construction along with a design report and will graduate from PSU at the end of spring quarter. 

Chad, who will stay at the Maseeh College to begin the Master’s program in civil engineering in the fall, will fulfill his desire to build a bridge by returning to Nicaragua in December for the actual bridge construction. Using materials provided by the local community, as well as donated steel, Chad and other PSU students will work alongside locals to construct the bridge.

In the meantime, Chad, who is interested in focusing his Master’s studies on providing safe, comfortable, and inexpensive housing in the developing world, will spend the summer in India working for WorldHaus, a company that provides affordable, eco-friendly modular kit houses to families in developing countries. 

All that adds up to quite a lot of world changing for a young Maseeh College student who is surely on his way to doing a lot more!