Student News

Cultivating Future Innovators in Nepal, Part 3

Jae Hyuk Song – September 5, 2018

The next morning, I woke up tired but less worried about the day’s class. We were going to visit a public school in Kathmandu that was severely hit by the earthquake. Packing the second half of the class materials I had brought along, we hopped into the four-wheel drive and headed off.

Arriving at the school, we entered a large yard separated from the city with a brick wall. On the left side was a long rectangular building that was painted in bright colors, towards the front was a gigantic mansion-like building, and on the right was an old concrete shack that looked ready to collapse at any moment. The sound of students excitedly talking escaped the walls of the building on the right, making it obvious that it was the school. Curious as to what the other buildings were, I was just about to ask Tamal when the principal of the school approached us and greeted us. “Namaste, we welcome you to our school. Today is an exam day, so please feel free to look around while the students finish their tests.” ADRF had already contacted him about the class to let him know that I wanted to teach his student how to make drones. He had liked the idea and he wanted his students to have a fun and refreshing class right after their exams, so he had prepared a classroom for me. Thanking him, I prepared for my class, then waited for the exam period to end.

While we were waiting, one of the teachers at the school recommended that I visit the mansion-like building next door. He led us there, with Tamal translating his explanations. Around fifty years ago, Nepal’s newly elected prime minister wanted to build a new house for himself. This massive building that stood before us was the product of his endeavors, but after the prime minister passed away, the building was used for other purposes. The front side of the building used to be the school, while the back part was a sanctuary for sanyāsi (Hindu monk). When the earthquake struck in 2015, all the students in class evacuated outside with the sanyāsi to wait for it to pass. However, the earthquake was unlike anything they had ever experienced, tearing down several walls of the building and making it unsafe for children to enter. Therefore, the school temporarily moved to the small shack that we had seen coming in, then moved into the newly built bright building which a New Zealand sponsor quickly built. This took around a month or so, but the students took more time to recover. The school provided art and music therapy to all students for two months or so, knowing that such traumatic experiences could have large impact on the children’s lives.

The teacher offered to bring us inside the building for a tour, which was still under maintenance with the help of a Japanese sponsor. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside because other volunteer groups and NGOs were holding meditation and yoga sessions inside. Heading around to the back door of the building, we passed smaller buildings that Tamal said were used for meetings and offices before the earthquake. I was a bit afraid to enter the building, since it still looked unstable, but Dhamala assured me that it was safe. The hallways were narrow, fitting two people shoulder to shoulder, and the stairs were uneven and creaky, even missing in some places. The walls felt brittle to touch, flakes of cement coming off at the lightest touch. The cement wasn’t any common cement, Tamal explained. This house was built with bricks made from a mixture of mortar, dried beans, and rice hulls. It is stronger than regular cement and can naturally regulate temperature. The building remained cool even during the hot summers and vice versa during the winters. It was now empty, restricted to all except those working or invited.

When we got back, the students had finished their exams and were waiting for the class to start. Just like yesterday, the class went by like a bullet, leaving me tired but delighted that the students had enjoyed the class. It took longer than the other class to finish because we had to troubleshoot a joystick that wasn’t outputting the correct values, but I took the opportunity to teach the students how to use a digital multimeter to measure the current of a circuit. Ending the class with a successful test of the drone we had made, all the students and I crowded in to a nearby small room. There, I once again taught them how to fly the mini drones I had brought, providing them a way to practice for a drone license.

After class, I got to meet with some of the students to get to know them better. One of the students, Ditya, had been in class with the rest of her classmates on the day of the earthquake. Sitting at the back of the classroom, she was one of the last ones to leave when they were evacuating. As she ran out of the building, a nearby pillar collapse, shooting shards of concrete in every direction. One such piece struck Ditya directly in the left eye, injuring her severely. Now, an infection had set into her eye, causing her to slowly lose her eyesight. Her teachers told me that unless she received a surgery soon, she would lose her eyesight completely in her left eye, but that surgery was not available in Nepal. ADRF was actively looking for sponsors in South Korea, and they hoped that someone would be able to help Ditya. As we said farewell, we gave Ditya a cake to share with her family and wished her good luck.

Last night, Mr. Saroj Karki, the chief engineer at NIC, had told us to meet him a block away from where the office was. As we were driving close by, Dhamala suddenly pointed out the window and cried, “Wait! Isn’t that Dr. Pun?” Surprisingly, Dr. Mahabir Pun was walking towards the office, although he had told us that he would most likely not be able to attend due to an eye surgery. We hurriedly got off the car and went over to him to introduce ourselves. Dr. Pun greeted us, saying that his surgery had ended early and was on his way to the meeting. He was wearing sunglasses and walking with a limp, but he guided us back to his office. On the way there, Dhamala whispered to me, “Dr. Pun is a national hero here in Nepal. It’s extremely hard to meet him in person, so make good use of the time.” I felt honored that Dr. Pun would take interest in my project and come in person to the meeting even though he must have been tired from the surgery.

The office of NIC was very small, consisting of three rooms: the meeting room, the local room, and the workshop. Dr. Pun introduced us to Mr. Karki and the software engineering team, and brought us into the meeting room. He began with a concise summary of what NIC does, stating that the main objective of NIC is to support and provide a platform for innovative enterpreneurs of the country. Showing us the drones that they were developing, Mr. Karki explained that because the RC market does not exist in Nepal, the hardest part of making a drone is finding reliable parts. Their drones were made mostly of parts from China and India; these parts were “copies of copies,” showing unreliable performance and sometimes outright not working. LiPo batteries were impossible to get within Nepal, and the drone flight controllers were all the way from Japan. Making the matters worse, Nepal’s high altitude caused moisture condensation on the drones, sometimes harming the electronics and added unnecessary weight. Because of the thinner air, the drone had to be much more powerful than standard commercial drones. To the question, “What is the purpose of these drones?” Dr. Pun replied that they were working to make a commercial “Medicopter,” which is a medical drone used to deliver essential medicines to rural areas all over Nepal. Then he asked me to explain what I was doing in Nepal, and why I had wanted to meet with him. Showing him my class material and photos from the classes, I mentioned the potential usefulness of drones in natural disaster recovery. Saying that the purpose for my current trip was to educate Nepali students on drones and their future applications, I also revealed the ideas that I had last night about creating a network of drones to dramatically lessen human fatalities due to earthquakes.

Dr. Pun listened intently, and when I was done, he first pointed out that there was a difference in our purpose: while my purpose was to educate, his was to create a commercial product. That aside, he wanted to know how he could help, so I told him that I intended to visit more schools in Kathmandu and Bhumimata with more drone materials to teach, as well as spread my education to Pokhara and other regions. I was hoping that Dr. Pun could provide complete drones that he could demonstrate for my students so that they could see what was possible and be inspired by it. If he could also connect me to a few interested and talented Nepali high schoolers, I could teach them how to make large-scale drones, and in turn, they could spread the education even wider. Dr. Pun considered my requests, then answered that he would be willing to provide what I needed. In return, he hoped that I could connect him with some RC suppliers in either South Korea or the United States that could provide a direct path to reliable drone parts. I promised him that I would try my best to do so.

Then, Mr. Karki showed us around their workshop, naming various tools they used and putting together the modular fixed-wing UAV they had been working on. He said that he was the only non-software engineer in NIC; the rest of the team, except for Dr. Pun, were software engineers. I thanked Dr. Pun and Mr. Karki for taking time to show us around, and exchanged email addresses. Bidding them farewell, we headed back to our hotel, now finished with everything that I had planned for the trip.

The next morning, we headed out visit several cultural heritage sites before our flight. Because I had no more classes and meetings left, the urgency and stress I had felt began to fade away. Only then did I become entirely aware of my surroundings, and with it the impact the 2015 earthquake had on Nepal. Visiting the Swayambhunath, the Pashupatinath Temple, the Shantipur Temple, and the Boudhanath, I saw cracks and breaks that had been filled in and painted over, holes in the road that are yet to be mended, and areas shut off from the public’s view because they were still too dangerous to enter.

This trip has made me truly realize the need for further education and development of drones as natural disaster response methods. I hope to continue my work next year in broader regions with better and more refined class materials, and to collaborate with Dr. Pun and his students. Drone technology can help not only Nepal in recovering from earthquakes, but also California from fighting wildfires, tracking tornadoes in the Tornado Alley, rescuing people during floods, and many other regions around the world.

I would like to thank the CSGC office at Deerfield Academy, especially Ms. Wakeman and Mr. Flaska, for providing me with an exceptional opportunity to teach and learn in Nepal, and for supporting this trip. I would also like to thank Dhamala, Tamang, and Ji-won, as well as everyone else in Nepal that shared my journey. This project would not have been possible without them. I hope that they will continue supporting my vision as I expand my project next year.