Monday, May 27, 2013


Our final day in India was spent in Mumbai: packing, last minute shopping, re-packing, and some entertaining events in between.

My morning began about 6am when I decided to check the status of my clothes that I hand-washed the night before. One key point that I learned from this event: while most air conditioners also work as de-humidifier, Mumbai humidity sets its own rules that defy technology.  Salvar suits (common Indian outfits for women) dry in 8ish hours, but any cotton assecories (US purchases) can't manage in 10+ hours even with an air-conditioner on full force.  Most of the other SWE ladies had anticipated this after taming some wild hairdos on day 1 in Mumbai, but I didn't take advantage of the drier heat in Walchandnager (or extremely dry heat in Agra).

After our final breakfast at the Y we packed up, checked out of our rooms, and hauled all of our bags to a single room that we had reserved for the day as a storage spot.  We then dispersed for our final day in Mumbai. On the morning to do list was Fab India (India's combination of Urban Outfitters and a tree-hugging Macy's), henna tattoo art, street market shopping, and mass at the Catholic cathedral.

The church crew headed out around 9:45am for the 10am mass.  Upon first inspection the most striking features of the Cathedral of the Holy Name were the beautiful stained glass windows, intricate ceiling paintings, and many reserved pews in the front (though I wasn't quite sure what those were for).  For a Cathedral, it was rather small, but by 9:58am the pews were still rather empty. But the mass didn't start at 10, and it didn't start on Michigan time (10 after).  People kept slowly drifting in, many bringing flowered wreaths with them (a presumed cultural tradition), and we figured the mass time was actually at 10:30am.  Around 10:15am, when our pew and the pews around us were sufficiently packed, Emily leaned over to me and whispered:    "Michelle thinks this might be a funeral."

Preposterous! said I.  Yes there are flowers and many people in black, but it's a Sunday, and at least in the US, Catholic funerals are not celebrated on Sunday.  But considering that fact that Michelle is SWE's version of Chuck Norris, perhaps I should have given that more consideration.  For that's exactly what this turned out to be: a funeral for a very prominent man in this parish.

Once we had confirmed Michelle's hypothesis, it was too late to respectfully leave to find a different church.  For the most part, the mass was the same as it would be on any other Sunday: sans the fact that it began with a procession of an OPEN casket down the center aisle, and at the end, there were 9 eulogies before the recession which culminated in a 15+ piece military-ish band playing outside the front steps of the cathedral.  The 2 hour adventure was also made interesting because of the kind (though very chatty) man sitting next to me.   He is a retired member of the Indian Navy and as I learned through whispers over the many high speed fans, his daughter works as an attorney in Detroit!  Though the post-mass eulogies were quite nice, the retiree also seemed a bit exasperated with the time they were takiing, so he proceded to try his hand at the feat of learning AND spelling my name: "What is your name again?  Berg-meyer? How do spell that?  B-e-r.."  Juggling cultural respectfulness for the mass, the funeral, and this retiree was quite the task.

The afternoon was quite calm, with a late lunch at Leopold's Cafe where we enjoyed a plethora of different Indian foods before heading back to the Y.  We sat in upstairs where they had AC and some groovin' 80s tunes (a similar sound track to the one at Cafe Mondegar that was menioned in Nadine's post.) I voted Rachel's meal as the most interesting-- Tandoori mushrooms, a heaping plate of button mushrooms in tandoori seasoning. My falooda drink/dessert came a close second though: think bubble tea ice cream float with rose essence, and instead of just tapioca pearls there were also some spaghetti-ish strands. Try managing that with a straw.

After lunch, although we had a few hours remaining in the day, most of us headed straight back to the Y to have a SWE party in the lobby: this consisted of us shrinking our pores in the AC and sending some final emails before the 20ish hour expedition back to the US. After 2 weeks in India, we were exhausted!

Two taxis for the airport were scheduled to arrive at the Y, but at 7pm only one pulled up. Even though we were assured that the next one was on its way, by 7:30pm, the group of 4 SWE ladies extending their exploration of Asia didn't want to miss their earlier flight to Nepal, so we decided to send one taxi off to the airport. This trek across the Sealink was reminiscent of the taxi ride back from the Women's college on day1: who needs Cedar Point when you have taxi cabs in Mumbai??

Sure enough, the 2nd taxi arrived to fetch the remaining SWE ladies, but meanwhile Taxi #1 was having its own issues. Even though most people would think that Nepal would be an international flight (including Taxi Driver #1 who looked at our flight confirmation before dropping us off), since there was a scheduled layover in Delhi, we were supposed to use the domestic entrance. This however, was only discovered after the 4 Nepal SWEople were denied entrance into the international terminal and told to go to the domestic terminal which was a good 15-20 car ride away. Fun. Good thing Labiba has some mighty swift cell phone skills else we may not have summoned back our Taxi Driver #1, who had made the drop off error in the first place. Only after that seat belt was clicked in place and the airplane rose above ground did we finally have a sigh of relief and relaxation.

So here ends our tale of SWE Overseas 2013. This was quite the advenure, and I am so much looking forward to developing ways in which SWE will be a leader in Global Outreach in the years to come! So, as my Grandma Berkemeier likes to say:

To be continued,


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Back in Mumbai: Elephanta Caves and Monkey Encounters

Today was our first full day back in Mumbai after returning from Walchandagar. (More importantly, it was Rachel’s 20th birthday!) We started off our day early with the usual breakfast at the Y then took a 5 minute walk to the Gateway of India where we caught the 9 AM ferry ride to the Elephanta Caves. It was one hour of pleasant swaying and rocking motions that resulted in different reactions: pure enjoyment that showed on the faces of those girls who are prone to motion-sickness, sleepiness from others from the rocking motions at such an early time in the morning and excitement like a little kid in a candy store for those like me who are obsessed with ferry and boat rides. 

Gateway to India
Fleets of ships in the Sea of Oman
While on the boat we passed hundreds of boats in the harbor out of Mumbai, as well as some construction on the surrounding islands that we weren’t able to figure out the purpose of.  When the one hour ferry ride was over, we reached to the beautiful island of the Elephanta Cave that is located in the Sea of Oman. To get up to the caves, we needed to walk down a long walkway to the main island from the dock, and then climb 120 steps on a steep incline. The way up was lined with little stalls of shops selling every type of trinket you could possibly imagine. 

Stalls of lining the climb to the Caves
Following the trend of promptness that SWE has, the stairs up to the caves were pretty abandoned except for us 11 huffing and puffing girls. These stairs and the humidity that most certainly was about 200% allowed us all to experience sweating and overheating in a way that we had never experienced it before. For the rest of the day, we had a charmingly permanent shine and glow. To add to the pleasantries of the heat, the climb up was accompanied with the presence of some charming monkeys, who could be heard before they were even seen. But I will come back to those monkeys later...

We reached the top of the stairs!
The Elephanta Caves are dated back to the 6th to 8th century. It is named after a huge elephant statue that was found on the island by Portuguese navigators. This elephant statue is now in the Victoria Gardens Zoo in Mumbai. It consists of 5 different caves on the west side of the island,  but the 1st cave is the main cave with the most intricate carvings on a platform with 27m sides, as seen below. The other caves were in different stages of erosion over time, with cracked statues and worn away stone walkways. The photos below show some of the scenes we saw, including the three headed Mahadeva, the dvarapalas gate keepers, and enormous reliefs of Shiva. It was a breathtaking site to see due to the sheer size and detail in the work. 

Main carving of the three headed bust of the Mahadeva
Giant carved statue of the gate keepers, dvarapalas, guarding a temple in the main cave
Entry way to the second cave

In the main cave
On the way out of the caves many of us stopped to do some shopping and browse the stalls of trinkets. Coasters, an elephant door hanger, cards, chess boards and bags were some of the things us ladies purchased on our walk down and we were all able to practice our haggling skills. When four of us neared the end of the stairs, we decided to continue on and wait for the rest of the group at the bottom. 

(I will recommence the monkey stories). Already earlier in the trip when we were walking from the main caves to the other ones, the monkey pictured below began to charge an unsuspecting Jennifer who was walking near the railing at a casual full speed run. Needless to say, that began the encounters with the monkeys and it was a hate-hate relationship from the beginning. Now, when we were coming down the stairs to finally leave the stall stores, both sides of the stairs were flanked with monkeys. We decided to not make eye contact with the monkeys, but unfortunately one monkey took a special interest in Shobhita. It tried to reach and steal her bag from her while baring its pearly whites while the other monkeys surrounded us. Before things got ugly, Shobhita was removed from the scene and we walked together quickly so that the monkey did not single her out. All in all, the monkeys were not the highlight of our trip. 

Our charming monkey friends 
We were all ready for lunch, so we rushed to catch the next ferry ride so that we did not have to wait an extra 30 minutes on the island. On the way to the ferry an adorable cow made its way through the crowd, hip bumping men out of its way and demanding its space and attention-- I have what you could describe as an obsession for these cows, so I was clearly stopped to snap a picture, which you can see it pose for of course. 

The sassiest cow I encountered on this trip.
After returning to the Gateway and exiting the ferry, we returned to Café Mondegar for a second time this trip, where we had an Indian/Asian/American/Italian lunch accompanied by welcoming air-conditioning and music from Coldplay, the Beatles, and other English classics that we suspected were put on because of us. The theme was a twist on a 50s diner, and the murals on the wall were certainly eye-catching portrayals of police officers, bar maids, and farm hands. Once lunch was over we continued on to the Taj Hotel (which was more like a palace) to shop in their jewelry and pashmina stores. It was reaching very hot temperatures, so the group split up into smaller groups and did some shopping or henna or just general nap time, and we came back together at the night for dinner. The night ended more calmly than usual after an early day at the Caves, but we were all excited/sad to return to our beds for our final night's sleep in India before we all return to the US or continue on to Nepal.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Day of Random Occurrences: Walchandnagar to Mumbai

Written on 24th of May

It was our last day at Walchandnagar. We were packing and waiting for our last meal, when the scream “Ekkk Gecko!”—was heard coming from the bathroom and out came Nadine running. True to the SWE spirit of watching out for one another, within minutes there was five of us trying to catch the gecko. At 5 inches long, this particular gecko was quite the monster. However with the help of a stick (used for the rockets activity), we were able to get the gecko out of the bathroom.

After the eventful start of the day, we proceeded on to the breakfast of delicious Indian pancakes (a hybrid of American pancakes and crepes) and preparing for a day of travel. It was weird getting prepared to leave Walchandnagar. We are definitely going to miss the small town which made us feel at home. The last four days was kind of surreal. It was a great experience for us to be able to interact with the students. It was unreal to be able to get the students excited about the activities we did, learn about engineering concepts and teamwork. The Principal dropped by while we were packing to say good bye. He was saying that the students were really sad to let us go and how they got all emotional after we left the school yesterday. It was kind of hard to believe that we made such an impact on the students in just four short days

SWE Ladies: On the bus to Pune from Walchandnagar
After saying our goodbyes to our extremely welcoming hosts, we started on our way to Pune which was 3 hours away via a Walchandnagar bus. Then came the exciting part of the day- Indian Trains! The train station in Pune was quite the experience. We were working to find the platform our train would arrive at while trying to get accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the train station. There were people from all walks of life trying to get to their train in a hurried manner. With some luck and a lot of staring at Hindi announcements, we were able to get to our train and on to our compartment. The train ride was quite fun as it allowed us to see India at its most native form as the train went through the rural India where we were able to see a combination of lush green farmlands and beautiful mountains.

On the train

Finally after five hours on the train, we arrived in the Mumbai CST train station. An interesting conversation followed as 11 girls who can’t speak Hindi and two taxi drivers tried to negotiate a ride back to the YWCA. We highly entertained the taxi drivers as we were trying to bargain with them. Finally agreeing on a price, we piled into two taxis, getting to know each other real close and personal as we 5 or 6 people squeezed in each taxi with our bags. He he he. Finally, at the YWCA, we had a quick dinner, joined the world of internet after 5 longs days and then after a long, long day—“BED”!

Walchandnager: Day 4

The energy of the last three days left us eager to share our final activity -- water bottle rockets -- with the students.  The presentation consisted of the following topics: Newton's three laws, drag force, thrust force, rocket stability, based on the rocket cone and fin shapes, and a simple range equation.  To help excite the students a balloon rocket demonstration was shown and a short video of an Indian rocket launch.  The demonstration was something previously done by a BCA student as a science fair project.

SWE members presenting about rockets.
Before the students could begin building they had to complete a worksheet that consisted of fill in the blank, labeling the forces on a rocket, and using the range equation.  The goal of the activity was to produce a rocket with the longest range, when launched with a consistent amount of water and at an angle of 45 degrees. The students were given a variety of materials, including two 500ml plastic water bottles, a piece of cardboard, a piece of paper, a small cup, and tape as needed.  They were allowed to use rocks or dirt to add weight to the nose of their rockets.

The creativity was outstanding with a range of nose cone and fin designs.  In addition one team connected their design back to Walchandager Industries by naming their rocket the same name as one Walchandager had contributed to.  Students also decorated their rockets to showcase their team pride.  The students were obviously excited about this project because they continued to work through a short break given to them before testing.

Launching was luckily conducted in the shade, as the students and us would not have lasted in the late morning sun. It was great to catch the expressions of the children as we launched a similarly sized rocket we brought with us to test our simple launcher before testing their designs.  The longest range the students achieved was 18.5 m.  It was equally impressive that the rockets consistently flew in a straight path.

SWE members launching rockets.
Following the activity we took a short break, which allowed the students to collect our names and sometimes email addresses, and to prepare for an end of camp celebration.  The celebration was held in the library, and started with the students sharing their feedback of the camp.  The feedback included how they were taught teamwork principles, applications of what they had been learning, how they were initially scared it would be difficult to communicate, but instead found that there was a dual comfort between the students and us, and how the camp was a once in a lifetime opportunity and they were grateful they were able to experience it.  Following the feedback sessions the students sang a few traditional songs, which showcased their singing and instrumental abilities.  In return we sang a rendition of Hail to the Victors.  Their gratitude was expressed be giving each of us a rose, and the group a pop up box with a bridge connecting the Indian flag to the American flag.  Likewise we gave each student either a Michigan sticker or pen, and the principal and teachers who have graciously helped us throughout the week various Michigan swag.  Additionally we prepared some wrap up slides, that summarized what the learning points of the activities and pictures of them during the activities  and they seemed to light up when they saw pictures of themselves.  The camp was officially concluded with group photos to help preserve the memory of the experience.

Being a chocolate lover, I must also mention the fabulous dessert we had at lunch that consisted of a thin Chrunch bar like outer shell with chocolate ice cream around a solid chocolate bar in the center.  It was certainly a nice summer treat to mark the last day of camp.

After a couple hours of rest, we took a tour of the town of Walchandnager.  For those of us who had visited in March, we revisited the garden where we had previously planted trees, and a couple of us took a turn going down the slide before all of us watered the trees.  We then visited the visitor garden, where a mango, coconut, or banyon tree had been planted in honor of high ranking visitors.  This was followed by visiting the Hindu temple, snack bar where widows are trained and which we discovered where the rolls we ate were baked, before driving through the colorful market just outside the Walchandnager gate. The tour ended with a visit to the badmitton/squash courts.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Walchandnagar: Day 3

Day three with the students of BCA, we felt the familiar buzz of excitement as our car drove passed the gates of the school. Our team has been enthused by the energy from the students and teachers in the past two days. As was customary in the culture, the students greeted us by standing up as we walked into the classroom.

We jumped right into the day with the Floating Structures Challenge. Students were given very limited materials—5 mini straws, 5 inches of tape, and a square of plastic wrap—and were instructed to design and build a structure that could remain afloat while holding the most weight.  The students were pushed to apply the concepts they had learned in school and in the past two days. We were very impressed by the teamwork in the 16 different groups and the creative designs that the teams implemented. Buoyancy was a key concept in this activity; the students did a wonderful job of applying this concept with their limited materials in order to maximize the amount of weight their structures could hold without sinking. 

We tested the structures by putting them in the water and seeing how many coins each could hold before sinking. The students placed the coins onto their boats themselves, which served as another method to test their applied knowledge of buoyancy. One team was able to reach 83 coins before their boat sunk. This impressive feat was accomplished with a simple square-shaped design; four straws on each side with plastic wrap wrapped around it. The physics teacher seemed to be very proud of his students who were able to apply their knowledge of buoyancy from class to be successful in this challenge.

During the challenge, we had an exchange of knowledge on the differences between Indian and American coin currencies. Our hearts were warmed at the end of the day by the smile of one of the boys at the camp. We were able to give him a set of USD coins for his coin collection—never was it easier to give away of 41 cents.

After a short break, we resumed with what was perhaps the most frustrating activity for the students—the Custard Assembly Line Challenge. For those of you who do not know what this is, this challenge is for the most part non-technical but drives home concepts such as ethics, teamwork, and working through unfamiliar situations. We present the challenge with almost no information; we tell them that each group is now a company that has been hired to create custard cups, and that they have one hour to create their product and come up with a radio advertisement. 

Throughout the assembly, we stressed the teams to the limit as we bombarded their companies with “communication failures”, “power outages”, and “company restructuring”. Respectively the students had to stop talking, close their eyes, or lose a member of their team. At the beginning of the challenge, our demands were met by some resistance, giggles, and strange looks as the students had never experienced a situation like this before. However, they soon realized that we were serious in our demands, and students were forced to experience situations that were very frustrating but are real challenges in everyday life.

We finished with a discussion on how teams were able to maintain quality, efficiency, and management while facing constant challenges. We were also able to tie the activity back to ethics—a topic that permeates our lives as Engineering students at the University of Michigan. This challenge is designed to make it so easy to whisper just a few words during communication failure, easy to peek just a little during the power outages, or spread some false messages during the radio advertisement. As one of the teachers helped to sum up, “the right choice is not always the easy choice.” This simple activity was powerfully thought provoking.

Compared to the other challenges we had presented, we were perhaps more nervous about this one as we were unsure how a different culture would receive the Custard Assembly Line Challenge. However, we were very glad to hear that the teachers felt this challenge was very relevant to real life. They expressed positive feedback on how the activity pushed students to work as a team through difficult and frustrating situations. They also liked how the students had a chance to work on English speaking skills and creativity in presenting the radio advertisement; one team had a short skit and another wrote a very compelling poem to sell the “delicious & nutritious custard cups”. The teachers were also appreciative for the coverage on ethics which is directly related to the students’ Moral Science classes—which are required courses for K-12 students in India.

This evening was refreshingly more slow-paced, as the bottle rocket team was very on top of their game. Almost all of their preparations for the next day were already completed, save for one final test launch. We are already convinced that the staff members at the house think we are some crazy kids; between perusing the garden for large sticks, hoarding all the used water bottles, and launching things around the courtyard we really can’t blame them. This of course is made much more comical by the fact that we do not share a common language with the lady staff and so are not able to tell them that these are all things for our projects with the students. We figure we are quite the unusual bunch to be staying in this guest house which accommodates businessmen for the most part.

We ended the day as always with our wonderful 8:30pm dinner, while again in a perpetual state of gratitude for the extraordinarily gracious hospitality that we have received during our stay. After dinner we opened the bedroom door to find a gecko taking a leisurely stroll in the previously dark and empty room. He was quite surprised by the sudden lights and loud noises and skittered away under a bed. Between fears of waking up to geckos on faces and fears of geckos on laptops, two valiant members of the SWE Overseas team (Michelle and Liana) approached the corner with bucket and glass cup in hand. After a bit of a tussle—I learned that geckos are very fast creatures—we (Michelle and Liana) were able to safely transport the gecko back outside.

After the excitement of the night, we retired early to rest up for the bottle rocket challenge the next day. As always, our minds were filled with excitement for the following day as we drifted off—though this time thoughts were also tinged bittersweet, since tomorrow would be our final day with the students of BCA.

-  Jennifer

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Quiz Boards and Turbines!

Once again today, we spent our morning at BCA working on outreach activities with the students. The first activity of the day was electric quiz boards. The inspiration for this project came from Shobhita; it was based on a project she did when she was younger. The presentation included discussing series circuits, electron movement, and circuit completion. These topics built on the concepts from the propeller cars, so the students were familiar with the material.

Students were given cardboard, a light bulb, battery, brass fasteners, and wires. Students needed to create a circuit such that when a wire from the battery and a wire from the light bulb were connected to a question and answer pair, the light bulb would light up.

The students broke up into their same groups from the previous day to tackle the project! They all created quiz questions related to the morning’s presentation such as conductors and Ohm’s Law. Once the board was complete, they worked with another group to quiz each other.

The first activity concluded with a brief follow-up discussion where the students talked about the importance of teamwork and communication.

The second activity was wind turbines. The presentation included many of the concepts from the Engineering 100 section focused on wind energy. We covered drag force, lift force, and varieties of wind turbines. This activity required the student teams to build their own Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine (HAWT). They were given a variety of materials including cardboard, foam, bottle caps, and cardstock. The blades of the turbine were connected to a motor so the energy created would be stored in the motor causing it to act like a generator.

Once the teams completed their turbines, a voltmeter was used to measure the energy generated. The winning team was able to produce 32 mV of energy! The day, once again, concluded with a discussion reiterating the concepts discussed and the importance of teamwork and communication.

We briefly returned to the guest house for lunch and then went back to meet with the teachers. At today’s discussion we learned about the Indian education system and compared it to the United States’ system. We also asked the teachers what types of activities and concepts they would like to see presented.

The SWE members who were not on the March trip toured the Walchandnagar factory (in hard hats!), where they were able to meet with employees and learn about the different industries Walchandnagar in involved with.

We ended the day preparing for the following day’s activities!


Walchandnagar: Day 1

Written May 20

Today was the first day of outreach activities with the students at Bharat Children’s Academy and Junior College (BCA) in Walchandnagar, and it was a huge success!  We had been told to expect 40, but 75 7th-11th graders showed up at 8:30 am and they all crowded into the main classroom at the beginning of the day.  We arrived at 9 am and jumped right into the outreach activities we had planned.

Introducing the activities
The first activity of the day was a variation of the well-known “Marshmallow Challenge,” which SWE Outreach does frequently with students in the US.  The Marshmallow Challenge is a design activity in which a team of four or five members is given 10 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape, and a large marshmallow and are challenged with building the tallest free-standing tower they can in 18 minutes.  We were able to find spaghetti when we shopped for materials in Mumbai, but not marshmallows, so we had to get creative.  Instead of the “Marshmallow Challenge,” the activity became the “Cookie Challenge,” and we used hollow cookies that could be stabbed with the spaghetti instead of marshmallows.  The students were very excited to work in teams and to compete with each other, and the tallest tower was around waist height!
Measuring the towers
The second activity of the day was Propeller-Powered Cars – a more challenging design activity.  The goals of the activity were for the students to design and build a small with a battery, motor, propeller, and a switch to turn the car on and off.  The students were also given brads, cardboard, straws, bottle caps, paper clips, and pieces of foam to design the cars.  The students were again broken into groups of four or five.  They were told to design their car on paper and get it approved before they could actually start building.  One of the challenges of the design was designing the circuit with the battery, motor, brads, and paper clip in series rather than parallel.

The students spent the next few hours building their cars.  In most teams, the initial design didn’t work out and every team went through the iterative process of building, testing, rebuilding, and testing again.  It was good that there were so many SWE ladies around helping out, because there were many building challenges along the way.  Eventually, most teams managed to make a working car.  Their excitement when their cars moved was awesome!  When the build time was up, we had a race.  A few groups had really fast cars and they were very proud of their designs.  When we wrapped up the activities with the students, the principal asked them if they had a good time and if they would come back the next day, they all shouted “YES!” 

In the afternoon, we had a session with several of the secondary education teachers at BCA.  The principal gave us a presentation on the background of BCA, and then we had a discussion with the teachers about the differences between the Indian and US school systems.  The teachers had a lot of fun questions, like how we were punished for bad behavior in primary school and what type of creative projects we did in science and social sciences classes.  We learned a lot from the teachers as well about how Indian students learn.

We spent the rest of the day stripping wires, wrapping battery terminals, and getting ready for the activities the next day.  It was a tiring and really really fun day!  We’re very excited for the other outreach activities we have planned for later in the week and for seeing all the students again tomorrow.


P.S. I haven't added pictures right now because internet is limited, but I promise they are coming in a few days!