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In just one summer, Varun Mehta ’06(New Delhi, India) gained experience that allowed him to make global contributions in the field of engineering.

The mechanical engineering major began his summer teaching math to high school students in the small Kenyan village of Narok, then flew to Toyko, where he spent several weeks interning with a structural engineering research firm that specializes in studying the effects of earthquakes on underground structures in power plants.

The trip was funded by Lafayette’s Jeffrey B. Havens Memorial Fund Award, which provides nontraditional, summer learning experiences with opportunities for education, growth, and personal development outside the classroom. It was established as a memorial to Jeffrey Havens ’78, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1979. In 2004, civil engineering major Fidel Maltez ’05 (Hialeah, Fla.) received the Havens award, enabling him to travel to Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua to study sustainable development and work on a project undertaken by Engineers Without Borders to bring safe drinking water to a community in Honduras. In 2003, A.B. engineering major Emmanuel Kirunda ’04 (Iganga, Uganda) used the award for a learning experience in Brazil and Chile.

Mehta says when he was looking for projects that spoke to the mission of the award, he decided he wanted to use the engineering skills and knowledge he had gained at Lafayette to benefit a community in an underdeveloped nation.

He found a position through United Planet, a nonprofit charity devoted to strengthening cross-cultural and geographic understanding to promote friendship and economic prosperity between cultures.

“It struck me that the essence of engineering takes shape in school, when students are exposed to math and science,” Mehta says. “I wanted to work more at the grass roots level in an underdeveloped nation and encourage students there to become engineers by showing them the world from a technological point of view.”

He had never taught a formal lecture, and assumed that he would serve as an assistant, tutor, or lab instructor, but Mehta was given a much bigger responsibility. He was asked to teach math to grades 9-12 at the Narok Boys School in the town, which has about 40,000 people and is located 80 miles southwest of Kenya’s capital city Nairobi.

Mehta found it fulfilling to play a leading role in his students’ education.

“I wanted to share my [personal] experience and really make an impact on the thinking of students in a community that is less privileged,” he says. “I also wanted to reach out to the students at a stage that is early enough for them to get inspired, so they could pursue interests and opportunities [in engineering].”

But describing what exactly engineers do wasn’t always easy.

“To them engineering is just a word so I spent a lot of time talking to them about what an engineer does and related practical engineering applications to explain simple math questions,” he explains.

When Mehta wasn’t in the classroom, he ventured into neighboring areas, coming face to face with tribal communities.

“I’ve realized that there are places in the world where people are not so privileged and we must try our best to increase their awareness about how science and technology work together,” he says. “It has given me an idea of how I could contribute to these developing nations in the future. For example, once I graduate I might do some work in nations where they need development done. Or, if I ever become a rich man, I might set up an engineering school in one of these countries.”

In Tokyo, Mehta was cast back into a world of privilege and education when he started his internship with the structural engineering research laboratory of the Central Research Institute for the Electric Power Industry, which studies the impact of earthquakes on power lines, dams, and nuclear and thermal power plants.

Mehta credits Lafayette for equipping him with the tools needed for his foray into teaching.

“Lafayette definitely played a major role in preparing me for such an educational adventure,” he says. “Being in classes, doing homework, and sitting in labs all served as a base for what was coming next.”

He says the Tokyo internship was an application of all the knowledge he acquired through Lafayette’s mechanical engineering program, especially from his structural engineering course.

“I was able to apply structural mechanics and some of the ideas from research on digital image correlation I’ve been doing for the last year with Jeffrey Helm, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to the work we were doing in Japan.”

Working in vastly different environments helped round out Mehta’s ideas and perspectives.

“In Kenya, I was in a rural town and there was definitely a lack of technological infrastructure. Any new little bit of technology that came to town would stir up a lot of conversation and interest. For instance, there was a library with a cyber café. For them, it was paradise because it was the only place they could connect to the outside world using internet and email and they were eager to do so.

“In Tokyo, technology was taken for granted. In Japan, if you were sitting on a train and did not have a cell phone in your hand, you were the odd man out. There is technology all around you and I think in Tokyo, technology is sort of taken for granted.”

Witnessing first-hand the glaring contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” gave Mehta the motivation to use his talents to improve the situation of people who have little.

“The experience has increased my global perspective on engineering and technology and how engineers can get together and solve global problems,” he says. “It’s made me want to travel to a lot of different places and see how technology affects the lives of people and made me even more determined to pursue engineering globally, rather than just study in one place.

The lessons Mehta learned during the summer have formed the foundation for his aspirations.

“At some point in my life, I want to use all of the education I’ve had to develop a global understanding of technology and society. I want to nurture this global partnership with research from one nation and professional engineers from another, where doctors and scientists from different nations can come together and help educate everyone else on how technology can be used to help society.”

Mehta and Yashpal Subedi ’05 (Dang, Nepal) constructed the model of the Riegelsville Roebling Bridge from balsa wood in a non-credit project supervised by Erol Ulucakli, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Mehta is president of The Corduroys (men’s a cappella), a board member of Lafayette’s chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and a member of International Students Association and Concert Choir. He also serves as a resident adviser and a calculus and physics tutor.

Categorized in: Academic News