Carleton University student puts engineering skills to work in Nicaragua
North Gower resident realizing dream of working in developing countries.
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Even before his university classes resumed this month, Parker Armstrong got a major head start on his homework.
During a unique three-month co-op placement to remote parts of Nicaragua this summer, the North Gower resident put his degree to use, and he still has another two years to go before he completes his studies at Carleton University in architectural conservation and sustainability engineering.
The 19-year-old rolled up his sleeves to help build school classrooms and redesign school washrooms in villages where a little more than half of children complete their primary schooling.
“It’s was extremely humbling and definitely a life-changing experience,” said Armstrong, who only just returned home from his trip on Sept. 6.
“You actually get overwhelmed with the sense of how much you actually take for granted and how much we have compared to how much other people in the world have,” he said. “My problem was I wanted to help everyone but I couldn’t.”
Still, by working with SchoolBOX, a charitable organization that builds schools to provide impoverished Nicaraguan children with an education, Armstrong was making a difference for many.
During his trip, he redesigned a washroom and helped construct three classrooms for the brand new Mirna Martinez School, located outside of Managua on Nicaragua’s west coast.
“The previous design uses a lot of resources and space,” Armstrong said of his design. “I was assigned the task of building a small structure that fit all the needs but was also spacious on the inside – something they could use and adapt for future projects.”
His blueprint meant not having to use as many materials for the build, saving money on the construction project and using less water in the washroom, which can now be used by the greater community as well as students.
“At some of the schools I worked at they only got water once every two weeks,” said Armstrong. “So having a water fountain where the kids can drink water or wash their hands and use the facilities is super important.”
Armstrong pitched the co-op idea to contacts he made with SchoolBOX when he did similar work in 2014 on a shorter build in Nicaragua following his graduation from South Carleton High School in Richmond. He returned for a short stint after completing his first year of university in 2015.
This time around he had been shopping for a summer co-op job, but nothing caught his eye. He successfully pitched the internship idea to SchoolBOX and to his school’s co-op department.
GOOD NEWS REPORT
Sarah Kerr, executive director of SchoolBOX, couldn’t resist Armstrong’s idea.
In addition to helping design facilities and becoming involved in construction efforts, Armstrong also evaluated the organization’s programs and produced a report on their social, economic and environmental sustainability.
“We appreciate that youthful energy and that opportunity to invite them in early and have them grow with us,” Kerr said.
Armstrong’s report revealed that many of the practices SchoolBOX already embraces are at an ideal standard – whether it’s involving Nicaraguan residents, sourcing local materials or collaborating with teachers, parents and the local government.
“It was really amazing to (receive) this report and seeing, ‘Oh we don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel’ because there’s a lot of things we’re already doing that fit into sustainable design,” Kerr said.
SchoolBOX has so far built 80 classrooms and 46 washrooms in 96 Nicaraguan communities. It also provides school supplies, libraries and teacher training.
When it first started working there 10 years ago, 49 per cent of kids completed their primary education. The rate has improved to 56 per cent.
MORE WORK LEFT TO DO
“There’s a lot of work left to be done,” said Kerr, a former Almonte resident who started with SchoolBOX as an intern. She is now married to SchoolBOX founder Tom Affleck, also a former Almonte resident.
Meanwhile, Armstrong is already thinking ahead to next summer, and hopes to work with SchoolBOX or in a different developing country.
For now, he and a group of friends continue to raise funds to pay for the construction of a new school in Nicaragua. They’ve already generated $3,000, which will cover the cost of a school washroom based on Armstrong’s design.
The friends have also partnered with another group of Ottawa residents to boost their positive impact.
“It’s really heart-warming to see how this community is developing to help communities in Nicaragua,” Armstrong said.
The groups will be working together to hold their first collaborative fundraiser, a paint night, in November. Check back on the event details by visiting schoolbox.ca/events.