The scene in the Active Learning Labs resembled a construction zone. Five-gallon buckets, PVC pipe, wooden beams, taps, putty, tape, nails, hammers, and drills were spread across the basement of Pierce Hall. This was the first-ever “Construction Day” hosted by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

The five-hour event, planned by faculty and business partners along with project lead McKenna Roberts, S.B. ’19, was designed to give club members a glimpse into the unique challenges of in-country construction faced by past traveling teams. Harvard EWB has ongoing projects on two continents: the implementation of a water distribution system in Los Sanchez, Dominican Republic; and a water catchment system for a school in Mkutani, Tanzania.

Club members were broken into teams and given their objective: design a 4- to 6-foot water tower piped to a tap-stand at least five feet away, with which one could fill a 2-foot-tall bucket with water. The teams, all students in the Supervised Reading and Research (ES 91r) class lead by EWB faculty advisor Christopher Lombardo, Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies in Engineering Sciences, had the opportunity to sketch their designs and request necessary materials.

What they didn’t know was, on build day, many of those materials would be missing. But this would soon be the least of their problems.

Victor Yang, A.B. ’20, a computer science concentrator, and Alisha Mah, S.B. ’18, a biomedical engineering concentrator, hammer together the base of their tower. (Photo by Alana Davitt/SEAS Communications)

In order to simulate the confusion of working in foreign communities, the Construction Day organizers planned a series of chaotic curve balls for the students. First, as few club members speak fluent Spanish and even fewer know Swahili, team members were only allowed five words to communicate for most of the afternoon.

“Our team chose please, sorry, no, translator, and screw,” explained Nicole Trenchard, S.B. ’19, a mechanical engineering concentrator and Mkutani project lead. “Community relations is really important, so we wanted to use words to communicate appropriately. Most of our words were chosen for those reasons, and we really need screws so that’s our only technical choice.”

Teams could attempt to barter for parts with the store clerk, played by Eshaan Patheria, A.B. ’18, a chemistry and physics concentrator. They also had to alter their designs to follow cultural beliefs of the fictional town they were building for, such as a fear of triangles and distaste for the color orange. Thus, teams could be seen converting structural beams to squares and covering their bright orange 5-gallon buckets with silver duct tape.

By the end of the day, each team had a functional water tower and a much better understanding of the setbacks that can occur when building in new communities.

“The hardest part of being in EWB for many members is having no experience with what it’s like to actually build these projects, as building something with your hands takes different skills than designing something based on engineering theory,” explained Roberts, a biomedical engineering concentrator. “Construction Day introduced all our members, especially those who haven’t traveled yet, to that reality and did it in a really fun way.”

Harvard Engineers Without Borders is currently running its annual winter fundraiser to support the materials and travel costs necessary for their work. Click here to learn more about this and their ongoing projects.

James Niffenegger, S.B. ’19, a mechanical engineering concentrator, and Anisha Dok, S.B. ’20, an electrical engineering concentrator, connect PVC pieces to their 5 gallon bucket. (Photo by Alana Davitt/SEAS Communications.)