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Engineering News Spring 2017

Building a Passion

In April 2015, the world was shaken by images of a devastating earthquake in Nepal. Two years later, the community of Takure still struggles to rebuild. Families live in makeshift lodgings cobbled together from ruined buildings and a patchwork of tarps. Of the structures that survived, many had been constructed using an inexpensive, seismically sound method: earthbag building. Superman-strong polypropylene bags are filled with ordinary local soil, then stacked in an offset manner like bricks. Barbed wire, buttresses, vertical rebar, and bond beams add stability and seismic reinforcement.

Seizing an opportunity to put their civil engineering knowledge to the very best use for Takure, three seniors chose as their capstone project the challenge of not only designing and building a single-family earthbag home that collected rainwater, but also producing a manual of their research and designs so local masons could replicate their work. Splitting the effort, Nabila Farah Franco became the structural lead, performing calculations and drawings for walls and roof; Olivia Carreon led the geotechnical effort, designing the foundation and determining load; and Makena Wong headed the water resources portion, designing a rooftop rainwater catchment system and storage tank to stand up to four months of monsoon rains and see the family through eight months of extremely dry weather. The team coordinated its efforts with a nonprofit working in the area, Conscious Impact. “We’re the designers and engineers on the project; we do the design calculations and make sure it’s safe, but it’s cool that so many people from all over the world are involved. It’s a very international team; we were Skyping from four different time zones over Christmas break,” Nabila said.

Following months of research and design work, during finals week and spring break Olivia and Makena headed off to Takure with their advisor, senior lecturer Tonya Nilsson, and jumped right in helping with construction. Nabila, who is on SCU’s women’s tennis team, couldn’t get away, but will travel to Takure at the end of May with folks from Conscious Impact.

Vitally important to Nabila, Olivia, and Makena was having a senior design project that helps others. And while these three thoroughly embody Santa Clara’s ideal of “Engineering with a Mission,” surprisingly none of them started off as SCU engineering students. Nabila, who originates from Bolivia, transferred from William and Mary, which didn’t offer an engineering major. “All the core courses here help you grow, not only as an engineer, but as a person. It sounds cheesy, but it’s so true,” she said. Similarly, Olivia transferred from the Bible Institute of Los Angeles where she had been majoring in physics engineering. “I was so lucky to get in here,” she said. “Santa Clara is a great place to do engineering—especially in Silicon Valley—but the professors are the main reason I’ve succeeded; they are so willing to help you.” Makena began at SCU as an economics major but found a passion for sustainability and civil engineering in her sophomore year. “Coming to SCU is an incredible privilege,” she said, “and having this project as a way to give back is very powerful. SCU has taught me to take the initiative and pursue my passion to make a tangible impact somewhere that it’s really needed. Here, I’ve learned how to find connections and make things work. Opportunities have lined up. Professors have been a tremendous support, and I’ve had a lot of freedom to pursue my passion. It’s been amazing.”

Read the team’s blog:

Makena Wong (left) and Olivia Carreon celebrate a good day’s work in Nepal.  Photo: Tonya Nilsson