Student engineers help build the future of Mexico research project

Mexican volunteer

While most Northern Arizona University students are taking it easy during spring break, geology professor Jim Mead, his students and colleagues will return to the Mexican desert for an annual expedition to unearth ancient fossils.

The team conducts research on the fossils without the aid of a laboratory or any sort of permanent structure. But that will all change this spring break when Stephen Mead, associate professor of construction management and no relation to Jim Mead, and students from Engineers Without Borders join the fossil hunters to build a ramada and work station.

Jim Mead has been leading teams of students and fossil experts from across the country to the village of San Clemente de Terapa in Sonora, Mexico, for the past eight years.

Near the village lies a rare tropical marsh containing fossils of species that date back nearly 50,000 years, many of which were unheard of before his team’s work, he said.

“Having a tropical environment in this location is unheard of, hence why we are still studying it,” the geology professor said. “My students and colleagues will learn more about why tropical environments could occur farther north 50,000 years ago than they do today.”

Stephen Mead’s construction team will work on the project in phases, with the eventual goal of creating a structure that will benefit the researchers and the nearby village.

“This research project brings a lot of traffic to the village because of all of the people involved, but there is not a lot of revenue for the villagers because of the lack of facilities,” he said. “Hopefully, this structure can change that, eventually becoming a place that will generate tourism and revenue for the locals.”

He added that he and his group will come back every year to continue construction on the facility, which he believes will give his students a hands-on learning experience.

In addition to what they will learn through research, both professors said they hope the students from different disciplines benefit from the experience of working together.

“While we are teaching and learning about fossils and construction engineering in English, we are also doing this in Spanish for the local public and students,” Jim Mead said. “The addition of the Engineers Without Borders will really be helping us and the village.”