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BYU researchers train Iraqi engineers

A duo of Brigham Young University engineering researchers specializing in water resources management just returned from Egypt where they trained Iraqi civil engineers to use cutting-edge software, quenching a thirst for more than just water.

"I have yet to teach a group of students who literally hungered and thirsted after new knowledge -- especially with respect to technology -- like they did," said Jim Nelson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at BYU, who was accompanied by BYU research associate Chris Smemoe. "It is like their lives were put on hold 30 years ago and finally they are free to pursue their own goals."

Organized and sponsored jointly by the Egypt and Iraq offices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Nelson's 10-day trip to Egypt was arranged to train Iraqi civil engineers on BYU-developed software that will help them to more effectively manage their country's water resources.

Seventeen engineers representing all regions of Iraq were trained on BYU's Watershed Modeling System, software originally developed by Nelson, fellow professors Norman Jones and Alan Zundel, their research associates and numerous undergraduate and graduate research assistants.

WMS allows hydrologists to create simulations of water activity, in part by showing the flows and structure of bodies of water visually and more practically using colored, 3-D animations instead of text-based mathematical representations. The software can help with everything from water resources management and conservation to analyzing possible floods. It is used by hydrologists in more than 100 countries around the world, from Chile to China to Antarctica.

The Iraqi engineers received training on WMS to improve their existing dam and reservoir facilities, many of which fell into disrepair during Saddam Hussein's reign.

"It is clear that they are enjoying many other new freedoms, including being able to speak freely," Nelson said of his students. "They often expressed their gratitude for the American-led coalition's efforts to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. At the same time, they would comment that prior to the removal of Saddam they were not free to speak their mind about such issues. They could not even say the word 'politics' or names like 'Clinton' or 'Bush' without fearing some kind of retribution."

The program was a success, although Nelson and Smemoe had to start with the basics. "I had them work a small hydrologic problem with Microsoft Excel. Many had never used a spreadsheet before the course," Nelson said. "However, with a little additional instruction they were all able to complete the problem."

The Iraqis soaked up the new information. "The training went very well. It went nearly as fast as one of our training courses here in the United States, but there was a small language barrier and some of the people did not have as much experience with computers," Smemoe said. "I think everybody there understood what we taught."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been one of the primary sponsors of the development of the BYU software, has used this software on many civilian, humanitarian and military projects.

BYU got officially involved with UNESCO two-and-a-half years ago when the university signed a "Memorandum of Understanding," in which BYU agreed to participate in exchange programs like the Iraqi training.

In addition to the memorandum, BYU has built a relationship with the University of Jordan, where UNESCO's regional hydrologist is a member of the faculty.

Initially, Nelson was a little wary about traveling to the Middle East, but when he arrived his fears were quickly dispelled. "People would say 'You're going to train Iraqis? Are you crazy?' Based on media reports, they thought Iraqis could be hostile, or at best indifferent, toward Americans," Nelson said. "No matter what you see on the news, that's not the feeling of the people I came in contact with. Like us, they just want a better life for themselves and their families. They're so grateful."

"They made some comments to me like, 'For 30 years I've been waiting to do something like this, to apply my education,'" said Nelson. "They finally can."

Writer: Anthony Strike

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