The MIT-Nepal Initiative: Four Years On

MIT D-Lab and Kathmandu University team, January 2018.
MIT D-Lab and Kathmandu University team, January 2018.
MIT Faculty Newsletter

Article as originally published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter


On 25 April 2015, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck the South Asian country of Nepal, killing over 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000 others. Aftershocks continued in the following days and months, including a 7.3 magnitude quake on May 12 that killed or injured another 2,700. Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless, with entire villages flattened across many districts of the country. Centuries-old buildings were destroyed at UNESCO Heritage sites throughout the Kathmandu Valley. It was the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake that registered 8.0 on the Richter scale and resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people.

In the immediate aftermath of that earthquake, Nepali students at MIT began to collect money to help their countrymen and women. They also contacted President Reif to request that MIT organize a more durable effort to help. As a result, the Administration authorized the MIT-Nepal Initiative. We published an article detailing the first six months of our activities in the November/December 2015 issue of the Faculty Newsletter. The current article is a follow-up to that report.

Over the last several years we have undertaken projects with Nepali partners in the areas of WASH, Housing, and Education. This work has been generously supported by the MISTI-India Program, D-Lab, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) and the Deshpande Center, the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), the Center for Art, Society, and Technology (CAST), and the Office of the Associate Provost for International Affairs.
Our Mission, Past Projects

Much of our activity in the first few years of the Initiative focused on defining our mission and identifying partners on campus and in Nepal. In terms of our mission, we quickly settled on two criteria. First, we wished to undertake projects that would benefit the people of Nepal, who live in varied cultural and economic settings in cities and rural areas. Second, we wanted to fashion projects that would provide meaningful educational opportunities for members of the MIT community. We wanted to marshal the rich intellectual resources of the Institute to attack problems in Nepal, of course. But we also wanted to expose our researchers and students to the people of Nepal, to their warmth and insights, and to the geographical and biological treasures of one of the most diverse countries on the planet.

Fortunately, the MIT community responded to our call with typical generosity and creativity. One of our earliest efforts paired a research group in D-Lab led by Dr. Anish Paul Antony with engineering colleagues at Kathmandu University.

The D-Lab group was interested in extending work they had done in India on affordable and sustainable home insulation to Nepal. Over the last two IAP terms, Dr. Antony has taken student teams to Kathmandu, where they have undergone training with teams of faculty and students at Kathmandu University. Once acquainted with each other, these groups have traveled to a rural village northeast of Kathmandu, where the teams have interviewed villagers about their energy use and collected data about energy loss in private homes. The teams have also studied gender dynamics and decision making in village families and in the community as a whole, in order to better understand how to craft usable technology that the residents will adopt. In January 2019 the team installed home insulation fashioned from local materials. This team also has been in close contact with a group in the Building Technologies unit in Course 4 that has been conducting research into improving the performance of low-cost reconstruction housing in a village near Gorkha, a town to the west of the Kathmandu Valley.

Education is another field in which we have been active. With support from MISTI-India and other sources, several MIT undergraduates of Nepali origins have returned to towns and villages in Nepal to develop curricular innovations for students in the PK-12 grades.

These have included the establishment of a computer lab in a rural grade school in the Solukhumbu district, an area in the foothills of Mt. Everest; a curriculum on sanitation and hygiene for grade schoolers and their parents in the public schools of Pokhara, the second largest urban area in the country; and a program in science, math, and humanities in a private school in Kathmandu that emphasized interactive and experiential learning strategies. A detailed account of each of these programs can be found on the MIT-Nepal Initiative website. We are currently synthesizing the lessons learned from these experiences in an effort to scale up our educational initiatives so that they can have a wider impact, as we indicate below.

Current Projects

Water-Testing and Sanitation: In Spring 2015, MIT Associate Provost Richard Lester provided a small grant to assemble and ship 2,000 water-testing kits to Nepal, where ENPHO, a Nepal NGO, used them to test water found in water trucks and food carts in the Kathmandu Valley. Based on this initial, successful collaboration, the MIT-Nepal Initiative, ENPHO, and its social business spinoff EcoConcern began a project in 2018-2019 to build manufacturing capacity and marketing networks to sell improved versions of the kits in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia. This work is being funded by a “Solutions" grant from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems (J-WAFS) Lab and MIT’s Deshpande Center. In fall 2018, Ms. Susan Murcott, a D-Lab lecturer, constituted a team of students and staff to pursue the project. After preparatory work during the semester, Ms. Murcott and five students went to Nepal during IAP 2019. As result of this collaboration, ENPHO and EcoConcern have developed the "ECC vial” and incubation kits to detect E. coli bacteria and other contaminants in public water sources. Production and marketing of the kits will begin in Nepal in October 2019. J-WAFS and the Deshpande Center have renewed the Solutions grant for the 2019-2020 academic year. This second year of funding will allow the MIT team under Ms. Murcott’s leadership to continue to work with our Nepali partners, and to explore manufacturing and sales opportunities elsewhere in South Asia.

Education: Building on the work done in this area by our students, as discussed above, the MIT-Nepal Initiative is now looking to create a more comprehensive, scalable contribution to K-12 education in Nepal. In spring 2019, the Initiative received a grant from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) to develop and test online learning games for sixth through eighth grade math and science, in collaboration with the Open Learning Exchange (OLE) Nepal and the Bloom Nepal School. Two MIT students, Abishkar Chhetri and Meghana Vemulapalli, spent the months of June and July 2019 at OLE Nepal, working with game designers and developers to identify ideal platforms and learning pedagogies to integrate into games. OLE Nepal colleagues will travel to MIT in October 2019 to continue this partnership.

Ethnomusicology: In September 2019, the MIT-Nepal Initiative will welcome to campus Dr.
Lochan Rijal, an ethnomusicologist at Kathmandu University. Dr. Rijal’s visit will be supported by a Visiting Artist grant from the Center for Art, Science, and Technology at MIT (CAST). Originally a Nepali pop musician, he completed an ethnomusicology doctorate at Kathmandu University and UMass–Amherst in 2014 and has been working with Kathmandu University students for the last several years to preserve and foster ethnic musical traditions throughout Nepal. He is currently restoring a historic heritage site that was damaged in the April 2015 earthquake. When completed, this temple complex will feature performance spaces, studios, classrooms, libraries, and instrument collections. While at MIT, Dr. Rijal will offer a public concert of Nepali music and his original compositions played on indigenous instruments. This event will take place on Saturday, October 5th, in Lobdell Court, MIT Building W20. It will be open to the MIT community, Nepali student groups at other local universities, and the greater Boston Nepali community. For more information about the concert, and Professor Rijal’s residency at MIT, see the CAST web site.

Going Forward

Four years on, we are pleased that we have been able to pursue projects that have helped the people of Nepal and provided excellent research opportunities and life experiences to members of the MIT community. We are immensely thankful to our funders and supporters at MIT, and to our partners and collaborators in Nepal. We look forward to continuing the work outlined above, and we are always interested in new ideas and projects. To learn more about the Initiative, please visit our website. If you would like to get involved, please contact the Faculty Lead on the MIT-Nepal Initiative, Professor Jeff Ravel. And if you are interested in supporting our work, we urge you to visit our donations page on the MIT Giving site.