Mario Verduzco knew only a couple of things as he flew to Costa Rica in January for a four-month study-abroad/internship experience: He’d be working at a recycling center, and the owners had a project for him.
The project turned out to be one of the most challenging experiences of the Las Vegas native and electrical engineering junior’s life. It wasn’t so much the project itself — constructing an apparatus to help the center sort materials more efficiently — but the conditions under which he had to do it.
“At UNLV, I work in a lab setting, so whenever I get a project, I have the luxury of having all the right tools available, and I can order something if I don’t have it,” Verduzco said. When he arrived in Costa Rica, “I assumed everything I needed would be available.” It wasn’t. The 20-year-old son of Mexican immigrants had to make do with the materials and skills, both mechanical and linguistic, that he had. “It was hard,” he said.
Verduzco secured the three-credit-hour internship through UNLV’s University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), which arranged the project through the University of San José’s satellite campus in San Ramón. He funded the experience with the help of the International Programs, CSUN Study Abroad, and the Rebels R.I.S.E. Study Abroad scholarships. Simultaneously, he was taking 12 credits in intensive Spanish to help him obtain one of his two minors (the other is in math). That helped him somewhat, but he still had to learn the quirks of the Costa Rican dialect, which at times made communication difficult.
The recycling center was a family-owned enterprise outside the small city of San Ramón, about an hour’s drive northwest of the Costa Rican capital of San José. Verduzco quickly recognized the problem he was assigned to solve. A truck collected recyclable materials — glass, paper, plastic — from businesses in town and brought them in massive yard waste bags to the center, an open concrete-and-dirt floor underneath a roof, like a covered playground basketball court. Workers would dump the contents onto the floor and sort them into piles, also on the floor.
Initially, the owners wanted Verduzco to make a conveyor belt from spare materials on the site. But much of the metal he was told to use was too rusted to weld. So he salvaged a plastic water cistern from the property, then bought a roughly 5-by-8-foot tin sheet and aluminum rods at a hardware store.
He used the rods as a frame to support the tin sheet and tank. Then he attached the tin to the cistern at a 15 percent grade so that workers could dump the contents into the tank and sort them quickly as they slid down the sheet. “Instead of people having to bend down and dig in bags, they can see all the contents,” he said, “so they can just grab it, put it in place, grab it, put it in place.”
Verduzco finished the system in his final week of the internship in May. It helped the center cut the time a worker needed to sort through a bag’s worth of recyclables from about two hours to roughly 30 minutes. He said he’s still more interested in electrical than structural engineering, but the responsibility and difficulty of the internship gave him valuable experience in completing a project in the field when conditions aren’t the best.
Plus, he said, “I learned something I don’t want to do: try to make something out of junk.”