Engineers Gain A Lesson In Sustainability from the Incas

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

In June, a group of undergraduate engineering students embarked on a journey to Peru to learn about sustainability, in part, from the Inca Empire.

“The Incas and Peruvian culture have a lot of infrastructure that has passed the tests of time,” said Carlos Chang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso. He is originally from Peru and helped coordinate the study abroad program.A group of undergraduate engineering students recently returned from a study abroad trip to Peru. The three-week trip included a visit to Machu Picchu to tour the ancient city and learn how the Incas incorporated sustainability in their designs. A group of undergraduate engineering students recently returned from a study abroad trip to Peru. The three-week trip included a visit to Machu Picchu to tour the ancient city and learn how the Incas incorporated sustainability in their designs.

For instance, the drainage infrastructure constructed at Machu Picchu in Cusco has endured for more than four centuries and is still in use.

Machu Picchu was built in the second half of the 15th century by the Inca Pachacuteq, Chang explained. The Inca’s sacred city is located between the Andes and the Amazon Basin and built on top of Vilcabamba’s Batholith; a very difficult location to access. For this reason, Machu Picchu was not discovered until the early 1900s.

The three-week trip marked the University’s first official ties between the country and the Universidad de Piura (UDEP), and was organized to help engineering students gain a different cultural perspective, as well as to partake in a sustainability course.

“As an engineer it is very interesting the way you can relate their knowledge to our current knowledge,” said Levi Pereda, a civil engineering senior who went on the trip. “[The Incas] didn’t know anything about sustainability, yet they designed a lot of things that are more efficient than what we design nowadays.”

Modern sustainability concepts are reflected in the Incas’ infrastructure, Chang said.

“They kept a balance between social, economic and environmental development,” he added. “Their concept about the integration of the spiritual and material world and their respect to mother nature added another dimension to modern sustainability concepts.”

Students emphasized the relationship between sustainability concepts and the Inca’s work during their final reports in July.

The study abroad program was organized to help engineering students gain a different cultural perspective. For the duration of the trip, each student stayed with a Peruvian family. The study abroad program was organized to help engineering students gain a different cultural perspective. For the duration of the trip, each student stayed with a Peruvian family. Karla Gamez, another senior in civil engineering, was also impressed by the Incas’ architectural precision and sustainable design.

“The thing I noticed was that they worked with their environment,” she said. “If there was a big rock or stone blocking their path, they wouldn’t move it like we do. They’d construct around it – they’d adapt to it.”

In addition to learning from the past and touring the ancient city of Machu Picchu, students visited modern sites in Piura like the Poechos dam, an ethanol refinery and a shrimp farm.

However, most of their time was spent on the campus of UDEP in a course taught in Spanish by UTEP faculty members Heidi Taboada, Ph.D.; Jose Espiritu, Ph.D.; Noe Vargas, Ph.D.; Kelvin Cheu, Ph.D.; Carlos Ferregut, Ph.D.; and Chang.

Students were constantly challenged to work in teams with others from UDEP and to learn how to use sustainable principles – like consuming fewer materials, creating more green spaces, and using recyclable materials in construction – to succeed.

“For a final project, we gave teams a budget of $40 and asked them to create prototypes with simple materials to solve different problems – like how to preserve and heat up food, and generate clean water,” said Ferregut, a civil engineering at professor. “One team figured out a way to capture rain water and utilize it for showering.”

Ferregut said engineering programs rarely provide students opportunities for language and cultural immersion in other countries. This happens in spite of the fact that U.S. engineers are likely to work in multinational and transnational corporations around the globe.

“I think it’s important that students learn how to manage themselves and work out of their comfort zone,” he said.

Indeed, rather than staying in dorms, UDEP staff members helped find each UTEP student a family to stay with during the trip.

Gamez, who had studied abroad before in the Czech Republic and stayed in a dorm, said that living with a Peruvian family was an excellent experience, and made a huge difference in the way she got to know the culture.

The students mentioned the delicious Peruvian cuisine during their stay, especially cebiche, a seafood plate prepared with fresh fish and lemon. Other dishes mentioned included causa, made with potato and lemon; lomo saltado (salted beef strips with fried potato); and arroz con pato (rice with duck).

After graduating this summer, Pereda plans to become a professional in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) to build green buildings and environmentally friendly neighborhoods.

“We’re using up all our natural resources and damaging a lot of the environment,” he said. “And we, as engineers, must be the first to start changing our habits so that we can lead the people.”

The new study abroad program in Peru was made possible by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of State, and will occur again in summers 2014 and 2015. In addition, Ferregut has hinted at the possibility of students from UDEP visiting UTEP in the future.