Global Summers: Senior Design in Peru - Just another University of St. Thomas Blogs site

Adios Peru: A Reflection on Returning Home

As I am writing this blog, I have been back in the United States for about 3 weeks. Only now are things beginning to feel familiar again. However, Peru has left a lasting impact on myself and how I view the world.

During the final work week at AASD, we had an exit interview to help us reflect on how we could take the lessons we had learned back with us. The staff focused primarily on two areas: professional/career and personal. Spurred by that interview, I wanted to share my response.

After having developed a friendship with several of the staff members at AASD, I learned that many of them had very different backgrounds. Before coming to Peru, many had changed their major several times or moved around the country searching for the career they wanted. The thing that everybody had in common was passion and a commitment to the mission of AASD. Having changed my mind several times about how to combine what I am passionate about, leaving for Peru was troubling for me. I knew that when I returned, I would need to know where I’d like to specialize to apply for graduate school. Now, as I am writing this, I have happily finished compiling a list of places I plan to send applications. I am able to “happily” compile this list because I know that my peculiar passions for music, art, robotics, philosophy, and maps can be combined. I learned to accept the uncertainty that not everything I love will show in my career; however, I also learned to understand that if I am passionate enough about something, it will find its way into my life again.

First of many sunset hikes to come.

On a personal note, I was the most nervous about having to speak primarily Spanish while abroad. Living with social anxiety proves to be difficult alone, and I wasn’t sure how crossing that boundary in another language would look. The first two weeks were a struggle. Every night when I got home, I would review Duolingo and my Spanish dictionary to learn new vocabulary and rehearse common conjugations in my head. At the end of week 2, I was required to conduct an interview in Spanish to a Quechua woman about her relationship with AASD. So not only did I have to organically make conversation in Spanish, but I also needed to navigate the awkward waters of discussing the organization I worked for with her. This was a social situation I would have had difficulty within English, but I reluctantly gave it my best try. Looking back, the immense feeling of fear (I was not in the learning zone, I was in the panic zone) didn’t last beyond the conversation. In fact, I was thanked several times for trying to converse in Spanish. What I ended up learning was that although my Spanish was not perfect, the locals appreciated that I was putting time into learning. By failing in these low-stake conversations, my confidence rose. Even today, I feel much more confident about choosing words to say or how to navigate conversations because I know that in reality, all my fear originates inside myself.

That face paint definitely didn’t keep the mosquitos away like it was supposed to.

When I left for Peru, I thought that I was going to remain relatively uncharged during the trip. Since I had already lived through several large life events, I considered myself “mature.” I wanted to express my confidence in an entirely new place. However, what I ended up learning was that being mature is being open to change. We all change a little bit every week because the world around us is constantly changing. Being aware of this and accepting that change as an opportunity for growth is key! From speaking with several friends who have studied abroad, this is one of the major reasons they encouraged me to live in Peru: change for better.

I look photoshopped into this photo, but I promise I was there!

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Aaron, Kat, and Anna for being not only amazing bosses, but also amazing friends. I’d like to thank Cameron for helping me discover the leader inside and for providing some of the greatest comic relief ever. I’d like to thank Micaela for showing me how precious alone time can be, as well as instilling in me the confidence to dig deeper in conversation. I’d also like to thank Phuyu, Anna’s dog, for making the office feel like home on even the worst days. Lastly, I’d like to thank everybody reading this! Everybody has a few short times in their lives where we can tell our stories, and it means the world to me to know somebody is listening. I look forward to sharing even more in person.





Monkeys, Ants, and Caimans… Oh My!

The Amazon Rainforest: A biodiverse otherworldly jungle wilderness that covers over 2 million square miles of central South America. When most people think of the Amazon, they often associate it with Brazil; however, some of the most unexplored regions of the Amazon Basin follow the borderline between Peru and Brazil. As per the recommendation by our leaders at AASD, a small group traveled to Puerto Maldonado in Southern Peru. The city of Puerto (door in Spanish) is named because it is the entranceway into the jungle following the Madre de Dios River. Unlike other Peruvian rim-cities such as Iquitos, Puerto has significantly less tourists and is located next to the famous Lake Sandoval. Entering the city, we were greeted by the expansive, earthy river! Before heading back to our bungalow hotel, we ate some freshly harvested Brazil nuts downtown.

Views of the Rio Madre De Dios winding into the jungle.




Nestled inside a hammock, I had the perfect vantage point to eat dinner and watch the river.

The next morning was an early one not only because we were going on a hike into the jungle, but because Micaela found a tarantula in her bed! Now fully awake, we made our way to our tour boat and set sail for Lake Sandoval. Only a 30-minute hike inland from the river, Lake Sandoval is known for its high population of black caimans (species of crocodile) and endangered giant river otters. At the end of the hiking path, we boarded a canoe and slowly paddled through the dense brush, occasionally spotting a partially submerged caiman stalking prey. As the brush thinned, we were greeted with the enormous lake. For several hours we paddled around the lake’s perimeter, spotting macaws, caimans, capybaras, and enormous flying beetles. That night we stayed in a lodge on the lake and ventured behind the cabin for a night hike. We were warned to stay in a group and make plenty of noise to avoid any encounters with a jaguar! Luckily, we didn’t see any jaguars, but we did see thousands of leafcutter ants following marching along a line. Tired, we made our way back to our cabins and prepared ourselves for an early morning of otter spotting!

Micaela posing with her pet tarantula.


Canoeing the entrance to Lake Sandoval while watching closely for caimans.

At 5 a.m. we boarded our canoe one last time and searched for the famous giant river otters. During our last circle around the lake, we heard a series of high-pitched squealing! Following the playful noises, we a group of six otters being watched by a large black caiman. This was the highlight of the trip! Once we reached the river, we stopped on Monkey Island where we lightened our backpacks by giving out any bit of tropical fruit we still had. Accustomed to tourists, the monkeys climbed down the trees and took my bananas directly! After supplying an entire island of monkeys with their lunches, we boarded the boat back to the city where we situated ourselves on an overnight bus back to Cusco. Reflecting back on my

journey to the Amazon, I can easily say that it was my favorite trip by far. On every scale, macro and micro, there was life no matter where you looked! For me, it felt like I was on an alien world exploring everything for the first time! For my final post, I will be sharing some more emotional reflections I’ve had about my trip to Peru in general and share some of my favorite photos! Thanks for reading!

A young squirrel monkey resting after a large lunch!

A friendly monkey chomping down on my last slice of banana.


Wonder of the World: My Journey to Machu Picchu

For our excited travelers, the journey to Machu Picchu began with an early morning in Cusco. As we boarded the bus, we were introduced to three other adventurers who would be joining us. Megan was a dental student from Northern Ireland, Marie was a German student enjoying a summer of travel before attending university, and Jessie was a thrill seeker from Los Angeles looking to cross off some items on his bucket list. With each conversation, we climbed closer to the top of Willka Wiqi Mountain where we would gear up for our first excursion: mountain (road) biking! After a brief safety briefing, we were off, coasting down the winding switchbacks. With each turn I gained speed and peeked cautiously around the cliff sides for speeding cars. Halfway down we descended into the Incan jungle and shed our jackets to enjoy the tropical weather. I regretted removing my rain jacket though since several rivers emptied onto the road and splashed us as we passed by. Rolling into the town of Santa Maria, I was soaking wet, but decided not to change too many of my clothes since we went directly to our next adventure: river rafting.

Views of the winding road atop Mt. Willka Wiqi.

Enthusiastic group picture half-way down the mountain.

Still damp from biking, I enthusiastically strapped my life jacket on over my clothes and was divided into my rafting group. Since my team was the first to embark down the class 3 and 4 rapids, we titled ourselves “strong team!” Despite our strength and determination, a few of us fell overboard. We quickly recovered and reached our destination: a sauna along the riverbank. All throughout the chilling rapids, we were teased with the thought of a warm sauna. None of us believed the staff until we beached the raft and saw steam rising in the distance. It was the perfect way to end a long day! Relaxed by the sauna’s warmth, I quickly fell asleep and prepared myself for a day of hiking along the infamous Inca Trail. Strapping on our backpacks, our conversations were interrupted by the chirping of parrots flying overhead. For lunch, we stopped at a small, organic restaurant called the Monkey House. There we tasted natural cocoa and befriended the owner’s baby monkey!

“Strong team” tackling the final group of rapids.

My new friend at the Monkey House.











Energized from the monkey’s playful nature and the cocoa’s sugar, we began to exit the jungle and climb back down towards the river. At the highest point, our guide Amaru, led us in a ritual to thank the surrounding mountain Apus. Holding hands, each one of us poured some of our water out and silently said what we were thankful for and what we’d like future guidance in.

As the sun was setting, Amaru warned us that we would be taking a trolley to cross the river into a cave. However, when the trail reached a dead end and we saw the “trolley,” all of us were a little worried. Instead of the cable car we had imagined, the trolley consisted of a thin sheet of wood attached by several loops of rope to allow the workers to reel the trolley back after each trip. The entire time I clenched any grabbable surface I could. On the other side of the river, we passed through a cave and approached Aguas Calientes, a small hub for travelers making the final leg of the hike to Machu. To celebrate our journey, we bathed in the hot water springs that gave the city its name!

Waving goodbye to my friends as I cautiously balance on the trolley.

Just around the river bend: Aguas Calientes.

In the morning, we woke up promptly at 4 am to hike out of Aguas Calientes for the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. Since I wanted to get the best experience, I chose to hike up the 1,000 stairs to the second gate. Once inside, I was blown away by the scale of my surroundings. In fact, I found the ruins themselves to be underwhelming when compared to the sheer size and altitude of the mountains that cradled the world wonder. Before visiting the city, I hiked backwards up the mountain to the Incan Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is situated along the final curve at the end of the infamous Incan Trail. Right as I reached the archway, the sun was rising above the neighboring peaks giving my experience there an ethereal feel. Next, I hiked down the backside of Machu to see the Incan Bridge, an ancient escape route used by the city’s inhabitants in case of emergencies. The sheer steepness seemed to engulf the trail only a few meters after it began. Finally, by the time I entered the ruins the site was packed with hundreds of tourists. Making my way through, I was a bit distracted by the number of people and the strict security guards who navigated me along several one-way paths. Overall, I was extremely gracious to have been able to witness such an amazing wonder. However, the physical ruins were not the highlight, rather their location nested between Machu and Huayna Picchu was what took my breath away.

Photo of the morning sun illuminating the Incan Sun Gate.

Beams of the Incan Bridge disappearing into the wooded cliff side.

Group photo in front of the ruins of Machu Picchu.


Engineering in Peru: Defining the Problem

Despite the amazing trips I’ve had so far in Peru, I wanted to properly discuss what it is my team and I are doing in the Sacred Valley. About two miles outside of Calca, there is a farming community called Sacclio. Like many other agricultural communities, the livelihood of each of the 53 families in Sacclio is tied to the ebb and flow of crop demand. For example, the recent health food craze in the United States surrounding quinoa consumption has greatly incentivized countries like Peru to grow and export more of the grain. This has caused livestock numbers to decrease since they are less profitable to raise than exportable crops. With less animals means less manure that the farmers have to use as fertilizer for their fields. As a solution, farmers have slowly begun to chop maize (corn) and quinoa stalks into smaller pieces to use as fertilizer and feed for small animals that can in turn produce manure.

Aerial photograph of the Sacclio farming community.


Julio’s demonstration farm where our machine will experience its first tests.




Although chopping maize and quinoa stalks has been proven to work, the current ways it is being executed have come with several complications. Without the access to many of the technology farms in the United States are used to using, rural Andean farmers rely on manual techniques to harvest their crops. One common method of chopping the harvested stalks is to use a handheld scythe tool called a “sigadera.” These tools have been used by Andean farmers for centuries, but are extremely strenuous and time consuming to cut the stalks into one-inch pieces. Another solution is to rent an industrial sized chipper and share it for a few days on each community member’s field. The issue with borrowing such large equipment is that it can be very expensive, even when split between several families. To make the investment worthwhile, families are often forced to chip all their stalks in one day. By trying to rush, many farmers are hurt which has scared them from renting the equipment again. If a farmer doesn’t have the time or resources to reuse their stalks with the methods previously mentioned, then the stalks are piled up and burned to free valuable space.

Pile of maize stalks waiting to be burned.
























The problems we encountered with these three methods perfectly describes the goal of our project this summer: create a machine that is safer than the industrial chipper, portable to allow farmers to use it in small amounts every day, and powered by a common water pump motor already owned by many of the families. The goal is that AASD could use Julio, an organic farmer born in the Sacclio area, to experiment with our machine and introduce it slowly to the 53 other families showing them the benefits it can provide. For my team, empathetic design is an important consideration when integrating our machine. We have taken caution to familiarize ourselves with AASD as well as the community of Sacclio and their needs.

Julio’s demonstration farm where our machine will experience its first tests.

Recently, we had Don Weinkauf join our team and help us to better define the problem! During his visit, we showed Dean Don Señor Nicasio’s workshop, Julio’s farm, a documentary made by AASD called Opening The Earth: The Potato King, and shared stories over dinner. Dr. Weinkauf gave us some great advice and gave us an exciting weekend to recharge and refocus. Next post I will walk you through the group’s adventure to the most famous landmark in all of Peru: Machu Picchu!

Team Peru and Dean Weinkauf discussing corn stalks with Julio at his farm.

Sneak preview photograph of the sun rising over Machu Picchu!


Getting Settled In!

Following a long process of familiarizing ourselves with AASD, the city of Calca, and
each other, our group decided to take weekend day trips to other cities within the Sacred Valley.
Our first stop was Pisac, which is known for its labyrinth of market stalls and towering Incan
ruins. After we bartered for alpaca sweaters and ponchos, we took a short empanada break to
refuel before tackling the long hike up stacks of Incan terraces. As we ascended, each of us took
a moment to present three coca leaves to the local mountain Apu for safe travels. In the Incan
religion, an Apu refers to a mountain spirit that guards the local village and emanated energy to
form his home. Since we were still acclimating to the altitude, we took every break on our trek
towards the Apu’s village as an opportunity to take a group photo!

Taking some time for a “breather” and a silly group photo.

View overlooking the foundations of an Incan village on the mountainside of Pisac.


Amazed by the beauty of the Pisac, the group decided to travel towards Ollantaytambo on
Sunday for more Incan ruins with less of a hike. As our bus arrived on the outskirts of town, we
were greeted by a religious festival parading through the streets. Watching and weaving past the
festivities, we arrived at the base of the ruins where a countless number of alpacas and llamas
grazed. Their fluffy fleeces gave us the energy and excitement to rise above the ancient terraces.
At the top of the ruins, we sat and listened to the sounds of the Incan pan flute and fireworks
bursting from the streets of Olantaytambo. As the sun began to set over the Sacred Valley, we
stopped at a local café before heading back home. Looking to “treat himself,” one of the students
from Vermont purchased guinea pig and let us try a few bites. Nervously I reached for the plate
and tried a few of its tiny ribs. Final verdict: did not taste like chicken. Instead, it had a fatty
texture with a grassy aftertaste. I was glad to have tried such an influential dish, but I would be
happy never trying it again!

Climbing towards the Temple of the Sun after cuddling baby alpacas!

Watching the Ollantaytambo market festival march through the streets to the sound of fireworks.

As much fun as our weekend was, work was quickly approaching the senior design team.
To solidify our initial research, we met with Señor Nicasio, a brilliant local mechanic in Calca.
Stepping into his workshop, my eyes wandered between the stacks of salvaged car tires and dogs
hiding between rusted sheet metal roofs. However chaotic his work first seemed, my entire team
was blown away by Nicasio’s innovative mindset. Having won several awards from the UN for
developing rural manufacturing methods of agricultural equipment, it was clear that we would
have a lot to learn about machines and the world from each other!

Hunter Hill, Rachel Lee, and Señor Nicasio discussing motor belts.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I break down my groups’ senior design project as
well as the important resources and connections we have made thus far. There will also be a
special guest appearance from the Dean of Engineering at the University of St. Thomas, Don


Let the Adventures Begin!

Team Peru snoozing and having a late-night snack at 2 am in the Lima Airport.

After months of preparation and anticipation, the journey of a lifetime for four St. Thomas engineers and a geologist is finally underway! Our first obstacle to overcome came much sooner than expected: the dreaded airport layover. However, despite the long hours spent walking laps in the terminal wing, we grew closer as team members and as friends.

Once we arrived in Cusco, the beautiful mountain views woke us up and prepared us for a full day of introductions with the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD) staff and our homestay families in the smaller city of Calca. Luckily, we did not have to introduce ourselves in Spanish alone since another student group from Middlebury College was spending the summer with AASD as well. To familiarize ourselves with our new home, we split into teams and walked around the city on a scavenger hunt. A naked dog was unanimously voted as the most difficult thing to find despite them being declared a national treasure in Peru for 18 years!

Picture overlooking Cusco on the drive to our homes in Calca.

To conclude our first day working in the office, all the students and AASD faculty hiked to a small chapel overlooking the village. Not only did we get to know each other even better, but we also started the breathtaking process of acclimating to the 9,500 ft elevation.

Group photo of the AASD students and faculty overlooking our home at sunset.

The following days were filled with team building activities as well as discussions about the intentions of AASD. As an engineer passionate about empathic design, I immediately knew that I was working with extraordinary people! In the posts to come, I will further describe what it is AASD seeks to achieve and how I can contribute to the common goal of becoming a global changemaker. However, if I’ve learned anything so far in Peru, it’s that sometimes it can be beneficial to practice self-care and soak in the sun for a few hours first! See you soon!

Sunset illuminating the Sacred Valley.


Introducing… Mike!

Mike Miller

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to combine your education and desires to explore the world into one opportunity? Well, you are not alone. Mike Miller, a junior Mechanical Engineering major at UST will be traveling to Peru this summer to enhance his education globally. In Peru, Mike will work with a group of students by engaging in social entrepreneurship in collaboration with local communities to create an impact and serve the common good. In addition to completing his Senior Design Clinic work, Mike will be blogging on behalf of his experiences in Peru. Be sure to follow up on this website to stay in touch and hear about Mike’s adventures abroad!