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BYU engineering students give back in Dominican Republic with hydro-informatics systems

BYU students carry out field surveys, produce technological solutions, and work with Dominican leaders to better manage available water resources

Since 2011, Dr. Jim Nelson of BYU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department has taken more than 150 BYU Civil Engineering students to the Dominican Republic to develop and implement hydro-informatics systems to improve water management.

BYU students’ work improves Dominicans' capabilities to make better water management decisions to grow food and be more resilient during times of flooding or drought.

In 2019, Nelson and 17 students visited the Dominican Republic for a week to conduct research and develop hydro-informatics systems, a resource that makes a big difference in preventing damage in natural disasters. In the Caribbean and Central America area, more than $13 trillion in losses were estimated from 2005 to 2014.

“The impact of these trips is broad for the people,” Nelson said. “Our work allows them to have better irrigation, and that means better food production. They have better management for flooding, and that means more warning time and less damage and loss of life.”

Under Nelson’s guidance, groups of students carry out field surveys, produce technological solutions, and work with Dominican leaders to better manage available water resources. The program allows BYU students to complete their Capstone projects in a diverse setting, service allows Dominican communities to benefit from costly computer systems free of cost.

Nelsons’ students are uniquely equipped to create solutions. All are senior students with years of hydrology and engineering courses under their belts, and the majority of students served full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where they learned to speak Spanish. Students enroll to attend the trip as part of their Senior Capstone projects.

For Civil Engineering student Ben Gray, the trip was a unique experience that increased his confidence and desire to serve.

Gray’s group was tasked with updating existing applications to help manage reservoir water, creating a tool to make predictions for reservoir needs, and creating applications to help automate water reports for government officials.

“One of the most memorable experiences of the trip was when my group took the day to go to the Department of Hydrology in the Dominican Republic to meet with the manager of all the dams in the Dominican Republic,” Gray said.

“It was intimidating and humbling to be sitting with this person who knows so much and have him treat us like engineers. It was a very enriching experience to have a lot of confidence put in us, and it made me want to produce the best product we could.”

As part of the trip, BYU students and faculty held meetings and trainings with the National Emergency Commission (COE), representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, and the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INDRHI) as they worked to develop information systems.

Dr. Fidel Pérez, former head of the Department of Hydrology at the INDRHI, who completed a PhD at BYU this last December praised BYU’s collaboration with Dominican leaders in the field of water management.

"These students have made great contributions by conducting studies for dams, irrigation projects and flood maps,” Pérez said. “In the last four years they have developed online computing tools, which facilitate analysis and calculation for decision making in the management of water resources. The contribution has been enormous and the university does not charge a penny to INDRHI."

For students like Gray, the Capstone experience is a unique opportunity to put their skills to work, and experience the fulfillment of engineering real-life solutions.

“This project gave me greater vision of what I can do with my degree,” Gray said. “I feel a lot more confident going out into the real world, taking on a job in a company and knowing I have a lot to offer. I’ve gained a lot of passion for helping people.”

Dr. Nelson plans to continue his work mentoring students and providing opportunities for them to put their engineering skills to work in the Dominican Republic.

As Nelson said, “The students that come want to make a difference. We have great students here at BYU. When their heart is in it, they do amazing things.”