A Haven in Uganda: A story of Human-First Engineering at Seattle University

Supported by Coughlin Porter Lundeen engineers Rachel Vranizan and Cory Hitzemann, Seattle University students created an award-winning senior project: a Ugandan Development Center for Early Mothers.

In Uganda, women who become pregnant out of wedlock are left without options. Ostracized from the community and often disowned by their families, they’re left without support or hope. Sister Elizabeth Namazzi, a Ugandan nun who witnessed the cycle firsthand, imagined a different future for these women and their children, and dreamed of a haven where the distressed could find care, housing, counseling and courage.

While earning her PhD from the University of British Columbia, Sr. Namazzi brought this dream for change with her to Seattle University. With the help of Jim Dooley, her Seattle host, the idea was presented to the College of Science and Engineering’s Project Center, through which small teams of senior students work with industry and community partners on real-life projects. From there, her concept was put into the hands of students Andrew McAferty, Steven Millett and Trevor Coffman, becoming their senior project.

Sr. Namazzi provided hand-drawn sketches featuring design and functional elements she envisioned. From them, the team developed a revised architectural layout for the facility which includes three buildings: a clinic to provide medical care, an education center to train mothers and enable them to earn a living, and a convent to provide housing, counseling and spiritual support.

The students were overseen by Civil and Environmental Engineering Instructor Nathan Canney, while Coughlin Porter Lundeen engineers Rachel Vranizan and Cory Hitzemann served as consultative industry mentors. Together, the team provided construction material selections, structural design of roof trusses, shear wall and foundation recommendations, and a 32-page plan set of the facility’s engineering drawings.

As a recent Seattle University graduate, the senior design program was fresh in Rachel’s mind. Her team’s project, which evaluated and retrofitted an existing warehouse for Seattle City Light, received the same National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) award as the Center for Early Mothers. She was impacted greatly by her professional mentors and looked forward to contributing to the program. “The Uganda Center project was my chance to give back to the program in a mentoring capacity,” she says, “and it was exciting to contribute to a real-world project with such an inspirational goal.”

The project received a 2017 Engineering Education Award from NCEES. Open to all engineering disciplines, the award jury considers projects which demonstrate meaningful partnership between professional practice and education. The award (which comes with a $7500 grant)celebrates the collaboration of faculty, students and licensed professional engineers and helps students not only increase knowledge and skills, but understand their role as global citizens, understanding how their work as engineers can affect public health, safety and welfare.

In alignment with the award’s purpose, the team faced challenges together. They researched Uganda’s requirements and navigated the lack of local codes, identified local construction materials and practices (eventually opting for clay-fired brick walls, mahogany roof trusses and corrugated metal roofing), and considered solutions for frequent power outages.

Rachel and Cory met with students every two to three weeks. Each student served as the project manager for a quarter, responsible for setting up and facilitating team meetings, preparing agendas, assigning tasks and following up on in-process work. The program gave students experience working on a live project, and appreciation for a global issues and human-centered engineering.

Today, Sr. Namazzi’s dream is becoming reality. Located just outside Masaka, the new Self-Realization and Skills Development Center for Early Mothers is in the works. Seattle University alumni supported the land purchase and continue to contribute donations, Sr. Namazzi’s religious order, the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, have committed the necessary staffing, and in February, the land deed was officially acquired, (a huge milestone for the team). The education building will be the first to go up, and the team is currently soliciting bids from contractors in Uganda.

Read the Seattle University News article, “Local Design, Global Impact.”
Explore all NCEES Engineering Education Award winners here.