Bruce Berdanier

Service, professionalism hallmarks of Berdanier’s career

In a career that’s far from over, Professor Bruce Berdanier has created a legacy built on professionalism and good works.

A recent trip to Bolivia by the SDSU Engineers Without Borders chapter included, from left, engineering students Rebecca Hofmeister, Eduardo Torres, and Matt Auch, project assistant Tito Ticano and Professor Bruce Berdanier.

The American Society of Civil Engineers honored Berdanier, the head of the civil and environmental engineering department, in July 2011 when that group designated him as a fellow. That status is granted to less than 4 percent of ASCE’s more than 140,000 members.

A longtime member of the organization, Berdanier has held and continues to hold leadership positions in ASCE. He’s also a recruiter, telling students about the benefits of belonging to a professional group that emphasizes advances in technology, lifelong learning, professionalism, leadership and advocates for the stewardship of infrastructure and the environment.

“Right away we try to get students involved in ASCE,” Berdanier says.

Because civil engineers often find themselves working for the public, ASCE has taken on a leadership role in the debate about how to keep the nation’s infrastructure repaired.

“They take responsibility for the vision for infrastructure in the nation,” Berdanier says.

Since civil engineers typically receive a broad-based education, ASCE has been promoting an educational agenda that recommends engineers earn a master’s degree or take 30 hours of graduate-level courses.

Mixing academics, experience

Completed in 2011, this reservoir near the village of Deschapelles in Haiti was funded by a foundation for international water projects started by Professor Bruce Berdanier and his wife.

ASCE didn’t need to convince Berdanier, who did his undergraduate work at Ohio State University, about the need for a master’s degree; he earned his in 1983 at Purdue University. Berdanier toyed with the idea of getting a doctorate while he was working on his master’s, but with a new degree, a young family and the chance to buy an engineering firm, he chose a different path.

In his mid-30s, Berdanier knew it was time to give in to his interest in research and teaching and go back to school for his doctorate. The rigors of raising a family and running a business meant it would take seven years for him to earn his degree from Ohio State University in 1995.

Berdanier started teaching at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 1996, continuing to work with his engineering firm long-distance until he sold it in 2007. By then he was an associate professor of civil engineering at Ohio Northern University. Just one year later he would move back to South Dakota and his position at SDSU.

“It’s been a really exciting career,” Berdanier says, and a far-reaching one, too.

Berdanier’s international efforts begin

In 1995, a hospital administrator Berdanier knew in Ohio through Rotary International took over Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti. The hospital had water and sanitation issues and the administrator asked Berdanier to evaluate the system.

Sponsored by the Grant Foundation which supports the hospital, Berdanier took the first of his many trips to Haiti. He did a feasibility study concerning the replacement of the hospital’s 1950s-era water system.

“It was a good system,” Berdanier says. “It was just very old.”

As luck would have it, on Berdanier’s first day, the hospital was visited by an architect who had access to funding from the Swiss Red Cross.

“You can make as many reports as you want,” Berdanier says, “but nothing gets accomplished if the funding isn’t there.”

When Berdanier was at Ohio Northern University, he kept working with the hospital and the village of Deschapelles where it is located, helping design a water collection system for the village.

A subsequent project was designed as a capstone design project by Berdanier’s students to bring water to the adjacent town of Les Forges. The original water system had been wiped out by a flood. Because of a lack of funding, the plans sat on the shelf for five years while villagers walked 2 kilometers to get fresh water.

The project got built after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti served to jumpstart funding for building projects. Berdanier recognizes the irony in having a water system knocked out by one natural disaster only to see it rebuilt because of a second natural disaster.

The sporadic nature of funding for building projects prompted Berdanier and his wife to set up a foundation for international water development projects. A reservoir at the end of the water line, with a price tag of $25,000, was funded by the foundation and built in 2011.

“That was exciting,” Berdanier says. “It was the first thing we’d ever done out of our foundation.”

Working in Bolivia

His experiences with the engineering needs of developing countries prompted Berdanier to help revive the SDSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders in 2009. The chapter has a five-year commitment to work on projects for the small Bolivian community of Carmen Papa and its local university, Unidad Academia Campesina de Carmen Papa.

Engineering student Eduardo Torres tracks water lines through the jungle as part of an Engineers Without Borders project in Bolivia.

Berdanier explains that the school had 50 students in the mid-1990s and now has 750. There’s also a boarding high school with 500 students in a town with about 250 residents.

“They haven’t really developed their water resources,” Berdanier says.

This has resulted in drinking water and sanitary system issues in a town where half of the homes have latrines and the other half do without.

“We don’t realize how undeveloped some areas of the world are,” Berdanier says.

Water chlorinator in the works

After trips to Bolivia last summer and again at spring break, the chapter is working on a small water chlorination project.

The town and the university are trying to work together on chlorination, but the town tried it once before and had a bad experience. Berdanier says the town is waiting to see how the SDSU group does with its project.

If they can raise the funds for the trip, the SDSU chapter will build a chlorinator in October on the upper campus. The work starts long before, however, as the Engineers Without Borders headquarters requires an exacting, formal review process for all projects.

Students had to complete a feasibility study and explain their design in a series of conference calls with EWB engineers. Before they are allowed to go to Bolivia, EWB will require that the students design a chlorinator and build a prototype.

Berdanier estimates that the cost of the trip will be between $1,500 and $1,800 per student. This will pay for airfare as well as allow the Bolivian university to buy food for the students and hire someone to cook for them.

“They don’t want you to be a burden to the people that you help,” Berdanier says.

Students must contribute $500 each for the trip with other funds raised from the dean, department heads, private donations and the South Dakota Engineering Society.

Fundraising hampers the group, says Berdanier, who explains that a reliable funding source would allow the chapter to take on more projects.

Third World challenges

Like any engineer, when Berdanier sees a problem, he wants to fix it. While his work in Haiti and Bolivia has been rewarding, it can also be frustrating.

“It’s more difficult in the developing world than it is here,” Berdanier says about completing engineering projects.

He explains that from feasibility study to design to construction, a project in the United States takes four or five years to complete. In undeveloped nations, the lack of funding can cause projects to languish and conditions to deteriorate.

“They don’t really have the maintenance crews we have to keep things running,” Berdanier says. “When something goes wrong, it’s just wrong until they get it fixed.”

Dana Hess

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