The nation of Chile is home to some of the most extreme environments on Earth, including volcanoes and glaciers, the world's driest desert and the highest peaks outside Asia, all spread along a strip of land 2,600 miles long but only 112 miles wide. It's also home to a rich cultural heritage arising from a diverse population that traces its heritage to nine indigenous groups and the several waves of immigrants who've come to its shores over the last 500 years.
This summer, a group of 33 Bucknell University engineering students traveled to the world's southernmost sovereign nation to examine the innovative solutions Chile's engineers have devised to overcome the challenges posed by their environment, and how Chile's rich culture informs and interacts with the design of its structures. Led by Professors
Katie Bieryla, biomedical engineering; Fernando Blanco, Spanish; Ned Ladd, physics & astronomy; Joe Tranquillo, biomedical engineering; and Global Education Adviser Trace Coats, the group travelled to Chile as part of Engineering 290, a three-week summer study abroad experience for students to observe study technology in a global context. Previous courses have taken Bucknell engineers to Brazil, China and New Zealand.
Join the students in discovering Chile's marvels, natural and manmade, and exploring the intersection of engineering, the environment and culture. (Photos submitted by Bucknell professors and students.)
Shortly after arriving in Chile, the group took a funicular up the San Cristobal hill overlooking the capital of Santiago, experiencing a mode of transportation not common in the U.S. "Chile is a prime example of engineering in extreme climates and natural influences," said Megan Grossman '19, one of the Engineering 290 students. "Seeing it firsthand provides perspective on the adaptive practice of engineering — how engineering alters itself relative to situation-specific needs."
Also in Santiago, the students visited the top-floor observatory of the Costanera Center, Chile's tallest building and the second-tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, which withstood a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010. "Chile has had to really protect itself from dangerous earthquakes because of its location on the Ring of Fire," said Nikki Lazarus '17, another student participating in the trip. "The new buildings Chile has erected not only are earthquake proof but look stunning. Don't let the glass structure fool you into thinking it is fragile. According to our tour guide, it endured the earthquake with only a few shattered windows."
The students experienced culture in motion by learning the Chilean national dance. Chile's answer to the tango, the cueca is based on the courtship of the rooster and the hen, and for years was outlawed for being too suggestive. "As a tourist, there's a difference between reading about the cueca, seeing the cueca and actually doing the cueca," Tranquillo said. "I think it's a very Bucknell approach: It's about not just doing things in theory; it's about doing things out in the world and making a difference." "At the heart of it, engineering is a human discipline," added Lazarus. "Engineers need to be exposed to cultures and people different from our own in order to better understand our world and know how to better serve it."
On the trip's fifth day the group visited the Universidad de Magallanes, a university similar in size and makeup to Bucknell that has the distinction of being the southernmost university in the world. They met with the engineering dean and professors who do research in Antarctica, watched students perform experiments in a lab and got a glimpse of how Chilean students approach engineering. The airplane trip to the university was also a learning experience, as there's no way to travel there by road from Santiago. The area was a shipping hub before the opening of the Panama Canal, and is experiencing a revitalization thanks to the advent of ships too large to fit through the canal. "They got to see the economic impact of transportation infrastructure," Tranquillo said. "It was a great teaching moment."
The group toured a replica of a ship Magellan took on at a naval museum on the Strait of Magellan. They also toured a replica of "The Beagle" of Darwin's voyage and one of the ships Shackleton used on his trip to Antarctica.
The students hiked in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, where they learned from their guides about the impact of climate change on the park. "This is an area where the presence of glaciers makes climate change very visible" Tranquillo said.
Another view of Torres, where it's easy to see why students like Grossman called it one of the highlights of their trip. "It is places like this that provide the inspiration to protect and preserve, to go to the effort of adaptive methods, and to reason through points of engineering intervention as a means to that end," she said.
They examined entrepreneurship in an international context by meeting with Bucknell alumna Jessica Sturzenegger '10. Founder of a baby-food company, Sturzenegger moved to Chile through a Startup Chile government sponsored innovation grant. They also visited a brewery founded with the same sort of grant and met with government representative Tadashi Takaoka, who directs Startup Chile, to learn how the Chilean government is fostering a culture of entrepreneurship.
The group took shelter in a ruka (a round, traditional-style Chilean building) in a remote area with no internet access and spent four days undertaking an intensive design challenge. Their aim was to create an engineering solution related to one of the UN's sustainable development goals with the potential to have a direct impact on Chile. "The design challenge allowed me to reflect on some of the pressing societal problems I saw firsthand in a more organized and technical fashion," said student Abdelhak Belatreche '17. "I got a chance to look for tangible solutions rather than just feeling sympathetic and helpless to what I saw. This experience has only whetted my appetite, and I hope to participate in something similar in the near future."
The students visited Plant Mineral El Teniente, one of the largest mines in the world, as well as the abandoned Sewell Mining Camp, a nearby UNESCO world heritage site. As they examined the incredible engineering that allows the mine to function in an isolated and highly earthquake-prone area, the Bucknell professors asked their students to also consider the costs the facility exerts. "Chile is a county that's very much in transition from being a resource provider, supplying materials like copper for export, to a producer and consumer of high-tech products," Tranquillo said. "We asked them to acknowledge the damage to the environment, but also to consider all of the different views you can look at this mine through: cultural, historical, economic. They may have come out with the same opinion, but hopefully it's a more nuanced view than they had going in."
Back in the capital of Santiago, the group visited the San Joaquín campus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, some of which was designed by the famous Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, including this building. They learned about a program for designing low-cost modular homes for an emerging middle class, and spoke with the university's dean of engineering, a founding member and driving force behind Chile's Engineering 2030 program. "His focus was on how we educate engineers not just to build mines, but to be entrepreneurs and engineer the economic opportunities of the future," Tranquillo said.
The students explored Chile's political history in Valparaiso, the country's government center. They toured the home of author Pablo Neruda, who was deeply involved in Chilean politics, especially the Socialist movement, as well as the National Congress. "Students were shocked by how much access they received," Tranquillo said. "They were able to sit in the senators' seats, to go to the press room where the president would be interviewed." A major focus of the trip was how government support can spur innovation.
After another flight, the group visited the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the La Serena region of northern Chile, where Chilean and American astronomers have been observing the southern skies since 1965. "The observatory is within the first international dark-sky sanctuary in the world; there are no towns within 40 miles that produce artificial light," noted Tranquillo. The group toured the telescope array and laboratories with observatory staff — including astronomers and the engineers who keep the telescopes running — learning about the technology behind making sensitive astrophysical measurements and how those measurements play against the difficulties of operating a site in a remote desert environment. Prior to the visit, students researched and gave presentations on the history of astronomy in Chile. "After weeks of anticipation, here they were, the gateways to the galaxies above," Belatreche said, reflecting on the visit. "It was as if to say that the amazing landscape around us (filled with snow-capped peaks and the vast Atacama Desert) wasn't enough."
Outside La Serena, the group visited Isla Damas, a national reserve for penguins and dolphins, and learned how the reserve balances the benefits and drawbacks of ecotourism. "How do you understand and appreciate the land without destroying it," Tranquillo said. "What's the balance between building roads and infrastructure in a natural area so that people can experience it - because there is strategic value in getting people to experience and appreciate these places — and also preserving the land. The students had a lot of good debates about that."
Later in La Serena the group visited the Mistral Pisco Distillery, which produces a brandy indigenous to the winemaking regions of Peru and Chile, as well as Guyacan Brewery, the first Chilean craftbrew. Outside the distillery, in the heart of the desert with virtually no light pollution at night, Professor Ned Ladd, astronomy, gave students a tour of the southern sky, much of which is unobservable from North America (with the few recognizable constellations appearing upside down). After three weeks in Chile, the group returned to Bucknell with a new and deep understanding of engineering in an international context and the connections between engineering and society, as well as memories to last a lifetime.