COVID-19 may have shrunk vital vacation work opportunities, essential for some degree requirements, but not for a group of 38 University of Cape Town (UCT) engineering students. Working in virtual teams, they built on UCT’s input into the Data for Municipal Infrastructure Assets (Data4MIA) initiative. In doing so, they gained vital data analysis and project management skills.
Each of the nine groups tackled an allocated project in municipal infrastructure, the students analysing and compiling data to drive well-informed decision-making around infrastructure priorities and spending at a municipal level.
The initiative is a partnership between UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE), the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (MISA) and Engineers Without Borders South Africa (EWB-SA). The project drivers are Associate Professor Pieter Levecque from the Department of Chemical Engineering and alumnae Lubabalo Luyaba (MISA, UCT Department of Civil Engineering) and Wiebke Toussaint (EWB-SA, UCT Department of Mechanical Engineering).
The project continues and builds on work completed in July 2019 when 19 UCT chemical engineering students spent their winter vacation gathering, processing and digitally capturing critical water and sanitation infrastructure data for the Amathole District Municipality in the Eastern Cape. In December 2019 this was followed by 61 students from the departments of Chemical, Civil and Mechanical engineering, who extended this work.
With limited resources and municipal data, the exercise stretched their problem-solving and decision-making skills, which forced them to prioritise their tasks, manage the risks and plan their course of action.
Teamwork in a pandemic
Due to COVID-19, the planned follow-on June 2020 vacation work session could not take place. Instead, Associate Professor Levecque and Luyaba ran the project online in December 2020, with the groups communicating and working via virtual interfaces.
“The groups were kept small to manage (and pilot) it online, and a total of nine civil and nine chemical engineering students signed up for the project,” said Levecque.
They connected among themselves and with the MISA team via WhatsApp groups. Levecque and his team did a weekly progress check-in via Zoom/Teams. This worked well, and in January 2021 an additional 20 students were added to the team.
Projects ranged from an assessment of waste-water treatment technologies on waste plant functionality and compliance to a comprehensive evaluation of the appropriateness of municipal Service Delivery and Budget Implementation plans. One group produced a draft masterplan for the Wild Coast Development Corridor. Another considered whether poor municipal asset management was the result of municipalities’ shortcomings or the funding models used.
The programme ran from 8 December 2020 until the end of February 2021 with cohorts completing their work between January and February 2021.
Group presentations and findings
Earlier this month the groups presented their findings to the project’s partners and other stakeholders, including Oxfam South Africa, the South African Local Government Association, the Southern African Asset Management Association, the national Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and the national Department of Water and Sanitation.
Levecque and those who attended the virtual presentations were impressed.
“The outstanding work done by the students is contributing to a municipal infrastructure policy shift from just building new, to balancing between new and existing infrastructure.”
“The outstanding work done by the students is contributing to a municipal infrastructure policy shift from just building new, to balancing between new and existing infrastructure,” he said. “This new thinking was evident in the most recent budget speech.”
Levecque said that the students’ work had contributed to the allocation of nearly R750 million for infrastructure asset management planning in the largest conditional infrastructure (Municipal Infrastructure Grant), through a 5% provision.
Municipalities will now also have to submit their asset registers, and this development also builds on this work, he said.
“Everyone had a sense that infrastructure asset management is a priority, but the students’ work assisted in getting the data to tell the story of how bad a state municipal infrastructure is in.”
Feedback at the presentations reflected the value of these student projects.
“Amazing presentations … It makes me happy to see the continuation and growth of this programme from the first time it started in 2019,” said one stakeholder.
One student commented: “I would like to express my gratitude as a student for this exposure and the meaningful insight it has given my team into the questions surrounding service delivery. A big thanks, especially to our supervisors, who have invested substantial time and resources into our development.”
“It’s really amazing to see our future engineers and UCT EBE put their hands up in such a meaningful way.”
The organisers learnt a lot too.
“In terms of the working online, it is clear that the students fully acquired this skill, to the point where they give us advice on what works best,” Levecque said.
In terms of the bigger picture, Luyaba said: “There’s growing consensus that government alone cannot move the country forward. It’s really amazing to see our future engineers and UCT EBE put their hands up in such a meaningful way.”
Meaningful vacation experience
The programme creatively solves the problem of a shortage of meaningful vacation work for students, which is a result of a shrinking economy over the past decade, said Levecque.
“EWB-SA approached us … to say they were setting up a project together with the Minister [of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation] for an infrastructure support agent to analyse data to make data-driven decisions for municipalities. The question to us was: Do you have students who can handle complex problem-solving, data analysis and things like that? And that’s exactly what engineering students do these days. So, there was a perfect match.”
“My hope is that other university engineering faculties can follow UCT’s example and partner with government for impact in our country. We desperately need it.”
He said that close to 120 students have now participated in this programme. The initiative filled a gap for municipalities, too, because of the shortage of analytical skills at all levels of government.
Luyaba said: “The programme proves that NPOs (EWB-SA), institutions of higher learning (UCT) and government can partner at no cost, for the benefit of society. My hope is that other university engineering faculties can follow UCT’s example and partner with government for impact in our country. We desperately need it.”
The eventual aim is to develop draft policy position papers on these issues, Levecque added.
“We’ve scaled different projects of bringing community development into the engineering curriculum and [are] excited to see how we can take infrastructure maintenance and the curriculum around that to different universities across the country.”
“Young people want to build their skills, and young people have value to add.”
Toussaint said that the project was a win-win for the students and MISA.
“Young people want to build their skills, and young people have value to add. Young engineers, in particular, are the future of the country. The engineers sitting at universities now are the people who will build the infrastructure for South Africa for the next several decades … That might not fix the crisis now, but it will prevent … crises over the next decade.
“This programme [presents an opportunity] where students learn incredibly valuable skills, where they can meet the requirements to pass their degrees, and where MISA could get tangible value that actually helps them do their business.”
Toussaint said that the students had also been exposed to work in the public sector – a foretaste of what they could expect.
“That, for me, really became the sweet spot where we had the possibility of meeting a very urgent need of a training objective, together with a very urgent need as far as infrastructure is concerned, together with the potential to build capacity among young people going into the public sector.”
Concluding the presentations, Levecque said: “I hope as a takeaway … we’ve been able to show that if we all put the skills we have together, this country is in good hands going forward.
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