Page top
Skip navigation

Next story

Cover of the Winter 2009 issue


VOL. 35, NO. 2






Engineering students partner with Red Cliff reservation to improve community infrastructure

“Hello, or as they say around here, boozhoo!” called out Tim Funk, tribal planner for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, to four engineering students from the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

Student surveyor from the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB)

The students waved back across the tribal office parking lot and headed inside to discuss the details of their first long-term domestic project. Until now, the UW-Madison EWB chapter has focused on international projects in Rwanda, El Salvador, Haiti and Kenya.

EWB is a nonprofit organization that designs and implements sustainable engineering projects for communities, the vast majority of which are in foreign coun­tries. “Working closely with a Wisconsin community is as important as working in an exotic foreign location,” says civil and environmental engineering graduate student Alison Sanders (above), who is project co-manager with CEE undergrad Matthew McLaughlin. “We’re also getting a valuable experience in learning federal engineering design codes as well as learning the reservation’s own laws.”

Student surveyor from the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB)
Sanders and McLaughlin, along with mechanical engineering undergraduate Gavin Weir (right), CEE graduate student David Blodgett and CEE Professor Ken Potter, met with Funk and tribal members from August 1-4 to begin three projects related to flooding and stormwater infrastructure. The projects are long term, since EWB requires its chapters to commit to a community for at least five years.

The Red Cliff reservation wraps around 14 miles of the northernmost peninsula of mainland Wisconsin. The shoreline has a view of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the clear waters of Lake Superior, known as Anishanaabeg- gichigami in the Ojibwe language (Chippewa is the anglicized term for Ojibwe).

Unfortunately, the scenic setting has not translated into economic prosperity for Red Cliff residents. The modest homes and community buildings on the reservation, which is home to approximately 1,500 people, stand in contrast with those in nearby Bayfield, Wisconsin.

“Many Native American communities were decades behind comparably sized non-Indian communities in terms of basic water and sewer infrastructure,” says Funk. “Generally, quality of life in some parts of the reservation is not as good as it could be, and we hope EWB can help the tribe develop creative, low-cost solutions.”

One task for the UW-Madison EWB will be to find a practical way to prevent flooding in a new community cemetery, which is located downhill of a wetland. Dry land suitable for devel­opment is often scarce on reservations in northern Wisconsin, and the tribe has discussed options for years. EWB members will evaluate the current plans to direct water away from the site and try to turn those plans into a practical solution.

The students spent a hot and sunny afternoon surveying the cemetery with surveying equipment borrowed from the civil and environmental engineering department. They also toured a sub­division plagued by seasonal flooding and the future site of another housing project that currently consists of a bumpy dirt road cutting through a thick patch of forest. Funk hopes the students can design a stormwater management system for the new development, and the students plan to return in the fall to survey the site after the leaves have fallen.

Connecting with the community was also a trip priority. Students spoke with a tribal elder, who explained the tribe’s history and the relationship between the Ojibwe tribes and the United States. Sanders and Blodgett met with the tribal council on the final evening of the trip and were featured on the local television station.

“We are really excited to be working with the Red Cliff Tribe,” says Sanders. “Not only is it a great learning experience for student engineers to apply their knowledge to real-world problems, but this collaboration provides a unique personal experience and cultural awareness.”

Red Cliff is not the only tribal community that will benefit from UW-Madison EWB efforts. Throughout spring 2008, Sanders and McLaughlin were in touch with multiple Lake Superior Chippewa communities. They selected Red Cliff as the UW-Madison project, but they didn’t neglect the others: Sanders and McLaughlin coordinated with the EWB chapters at UW-Platteville and Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, which will work with Lac Vieux Desert. Michigan Technological Institute will pick up projects with Keweenaw Bay.

“I’m very appreciative of the effort and attitude of the group,” Funk says. “Beyond the practical help, I’m looking forward to the energy, enthusiasm and inspiration of the UW-Madison EWB chapter.”

Page topEnd of page