Engineering in the sky

They designed in Medford and built in Tibet


Each morning in the tiny Tibetan village of Gyatsa 12,000 feet in the sky, a resident knocked on the door of the community center where six sleepy Tufts students and a faculty member were waking up. Outside was a stunning panorama of the world’s highest mountains. Inside the villager gave the group a thermos of hot tea laced with yak butter and salt into which he stirred tsampa (barley flour).

Sarah Freeman, E05, who spent two weeks in the village in June, smiles at the recollection of the thick, greasy beverage that was her daily breakfast. “It’s an acquired taste,” she says, politely.

Freeman, five other Tufts students and Douglas Matson, associate professor of mechanical engineering, went to Gyatsa under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders, a national organization that designs and implements engineering projects around the world. By the time the Tufts team left Tibet, it had installed a community latrine and solar cooker in Gyatsa, watched a colleague deal with a life-threatening illness, and learned how to run a project in a remote area without the benefit of technology they are used to in the United States.

Sarah Freeman, E05, with kids from Gyatsa © JULIA TONG

Freeman and Hoi Yee Lam, E05, founded the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders a year ago. Through the organization, they learned that the KunDe Foundation, a group of doctors and health care providers in Tibet, was looking for help in Gyatsa.

“We had to learn about local construction techniques and social and cultural norms,” Freeman says. “There’s a big difference between designing a latrine for the Appalachian Trail, for example, and one for a tiny village in Tibet.”

While only a handful of students went to Tibet, the project actually involved 50 Tufts students from various engineering disciplines who spent the school year designing the projects. They also raised about $30,000, primarily from the University College of Citizenship and Public Service and from Fredric S. Berger, A70, an engineering overseer.

Matson was one of five Tufts faculty advisors for the project. “In the School of Engineering we’re trying to develop leadership skills in the students and also give them the ability to go out and do public service projects. This was an absolutely perfect way of doing this,” he says.

Prof. Douglas Matson, right, shares a laugh with a villager. © SARAH FREEMAN

The group flew to Beijing via Chicago and Tokyo and took two more planes to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Then they made the long, bumpy drive to Gyatsa 10 hours away. After two days, Lam, who had had a respiratory infection, became sick in the high, thin air. The KunDe doctors recognized the symptoms of altitude sickness and knew that if she didn’t leave, she could die. So despite a year of work, Lam was taken to Hong Kong, where she safely recuperated.

The students worked with the villagers to build the latrine, a small house made of fieldstone and mud with a raised cement floor. A local carpenter built the solar cooker, which will be used to heat water. The students tested the cooker by baking an apple pie with a crust made of yak butter and flour. The oven, a preliminary design, reached 250 degrees.

During this school year, the students will be refining their work on the solar oven, which will be used by the KunDe doctors to heat water and sanitize medical equipment.

“All engineering students should get an opportunity like this,” Freeman says. “When you’re in school, you do a lot of design work over four years, but carrying out the design and implementing it is different. It’s one thing to have a diagram of a latrine, but then we had to say, ‘OK, how are going to build it?’ So many times you do designs and never see them built. This is going to be used.”

Tufts students and villagers build the community latrine, a small house made of fieldstone and mud. © SARAH FREEMAN

Says Matson, “The students were thrilled. Jon Crocker [E07] told me, ‘I can’t believe what I’m doing. I’m only a sophomore, and I’m building this thing.’ ”