May 2011 Archives

First Timer

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I have never been on a plane, never been outside the country, never blogged and this two week long trip is sure to bring many more first time experiences for me. I am anxious to begin this journey and would like to thank all the people who make it possible year after year and Professor Duffy for inviting me to come with this group. As we are now just one day away from departure I am not nervous rather anxious to put my recently acquired degree in Mechanical Engineering to good use. I am also looking forward to experiencing different cultures and meeting new people, although I realize that my Spanish is lacking and the language barrier may be difficult at times I feel that the trip will be a truly rewarding experience.

During my Undergraduate studies at UMASS Lowell I worked alongside Kevin Duncan and Graduate student Maia Benavente in performing a structural and thermal analysis of the first generation passive solar adobe house. Goals for the trip are to obtain feedback on the first generation house from the locals and figure out if their are changes or improvements they would like to see made. At our University we did research on varying the composition of the building material and how it affected the structural and thermal properties. The equipment we used is vastly different then how locals test the adobe bricks, therefore it is important to work with locals and learn how they make it, how they determine when its ready for use and how they determine if its strong/safe enough for construction. Combining the knowledge we obtained through our research and the knowledge of the local builders we would like to propose a new composition for the bricks of roughly 30% straw by volume for a secondary wall layer which would improve the thermal efficiency of the passive solar house. We hope to begin construction on the second generation passive solar adobe house as well.

For more information on the Village Empowerment Project visit

The words in the title above belong to Kelly, a member of the January 2008 Village Empowerment Project (VEP) crew.  At the time, she was an engineering student and hoped to actually install the bio-digester that she and a partner had designed “on paper” during the previous semester.  With the system, people could compost animal manure (mostly from ubiquitous guinea pigs) to create fertilizer and cooking gas, both quite useful byproducts.  But Kelly came to understand that the VEP was about much more than bringing a technical fix to a technical problem.  The human interaction and connection across cultures that had to happen, and that did happen when the bio-digester installation started in a place called Laguna, was another equally valuable dimension to her “capstone” experience.  It revealed the larger, social significance of the manner we make our way in the world and demonstrated that this is no less a consideration for engineers than for anyone else.


I was with the January 2008 crew too, filming for a promotional video, and I had a chance to observe Kelly and many others close-up for hours and days at a time.  It did not take long, I noticed, before they were forever changed, pushed harder in a direction they might already have been going but forever changed nevertheless.  This was prompted by the reality of the poverty they saw, by the kindness and modesty of the people they met, and by the varied beauty of the landscape.  Even before going down Kelly had plans to join a convent, which she did right after graduation, yet I’m sure her vocation was more grounded and continues to be grounded by the time she spent in Peru.  And that holds true for everyone else and their particular career path as well.  In this sense, an odd sense, the folks who participate in the VEP probably receive as much as they give to the people in the mountain communities they serve.


As I get ready to leave for my third trip to Peru, departing in less than two weeks, I am fleshing out a list of specific objectives.  I’m a filmmaker (not so great but competent enough) and one job I’ll have is to collect footage that can be edited for still more promotion and recruitment videos.  I also teach filmmaking (among a number of subjects) and I’m bringing down a student, Dimitrios, who I hope to nudge to the next level with his camera skills, guiding and testing him in the practical application of techniques we learned in the classroom this spring.  Finally, however, I'm going because I am hungry to witness the power this particular service learning initiative has to work personal transformations.  I want to see first-hand, once again, how a counter-narrative can develop, challenging the notion that university training (as an engineer or otherwise) is simply a means to get a degree, land a job, make money, and be an individual success.


Following this post, then, before we actually leave, others will join in, some of them VEP veterans like me and others new to the venture, each reflecting on the moment at hand.  During our trip, when we have access to an internet café (in Lima, Huarmey, and Casma), we will update the blog and let readers know what we’re seeing, thinking, and doing.  Ciao for now.

Chad Montrie

Professor, History Department 

The Peru Village Empowerment Project is a model service learning program based in the College of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. 


It began nearly fifteen years ago with an exploratory visit to several remote communities scattered throughout the Andes to assess basic needs there and to determine opportunities for student engagement.  Since then, Prof. John Duffy has led twice-yearly trips to an ever expanding network of villages, shuttling a dozen or more undergraduate and graduate students at a time. 


These trips largely focus on the installation and maintenance of solar panels at schools and health clinics, providing electricity to power lights, communication radios, and vaccine refrigerators. Yet VEP participants also build water filtration and drip irrigation systems, construct bio-digesters and passive solar adobe houses, develop and distribute medical testing manuals, deliver and fit prosthetic limbs, survey community dynamics, and document the Project in writing and on film.  In fact, a widening range of activities has necessarily meant increasing involvement from many students and faculty outside Engineering.


Visit our website at


Watch the video from a recente trip at

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