Despite bus breakdowns and challenges with government bureaucracy, the Big Green Bus and Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering promoted both sustainability and philanthropic engineering projects through entirely student-led trips this summer.
The 10 students on the Big Green Bus crew were on the road for 12 weeks and arrived back on campus Sept. 5. The crew traveled to different businesses, schools and environmental organizations to generate dialogue and to build connections between different community groups working toward similar goals, Big Green Bus crew member Anna Morenz ’13 said.
The Big Green Bus is a completely student-run nonprofit organization, and crew members worked throughout the year to plan the bus’s route, schedule, goals and design. The particular bus used this year, formerly operated by Greyhound, completed its second tour this summer and was built to resemble a model sustainable home.
The diverse group of students stayed in most cities for two or three days and spent the rest of the time on the road, planning the next city’s events, searching for biofuel for the bus, blogging and using social media to network with people, Morenz said.
“Basically our bus is a big green flashing light for sustainability that gets people’s attention,” she said. “Our tagline is, A Vehicle for Inspiration.'”
This year’s crew adopted a greater community action focus than past trips, Morenz said.
“We tried to reimagine bus events from park and talk’ events to community action events where we were being more hands-on and active with groups, like having a potluck or a litter pickup with more time to have dialogue with different people,” she said.
When the Big Green Bus began, it was loosely centered on climate change, but the organization’s focus has become more focused on conservation, according to Rory Gawler ’05, assistant director of the Outdoor Programs Office and staff advisor of the Big Green Bus.
“What we’re trying to get people to do is conserve, mostly,” he said. “They’ve really focused on educating people on all of the different aspects of sustainability.”
Gawler, who was a part of the Big Green Bus’ inaugural trip, said he was impressed with how students were able to “physically move ideas” around the country. He said that the combination of learning and teaching that crew members undertake is effective in connecting people in nearby communities to solve similar problems.
Morenz said that the Big Green Bus aimed to impart the message that individuals can gain power by joining together as a community, and the crew tried to set that example themselves. She said she was both hopeful and impressed after witnessing the various grassroots efforts and sustainability initiatives set up throughout the country.
Students encountered a few obstacles on the trip, such as the bus breaking down on the road outside of Bozeman, Mont., Morenz said. Breakdowns are common, however, and happen virtually every year on the trip, Gawler said. He said that because the nonprofit is independent, participants do their own repairs.
“They raise their own money, plan the trip and fix the bus themselves,” he said. “If they do anything positive for the environment, that’s great, but they also learn a lot about how to work together as a group and to solve problems all the things a liberal arts education teaches.”
Gawler said that students return home from the trip as sustainability experts and that many will continue to work in the field both throughout the coming year and for the rest of their lives.
“With this project, people see what a group of diverse people can do when they focus in on one goal or problem,” he said. “When we do groups in school, we have competing priorities, but I think the power of a small group of people to accomplish things is really remarkable.”
Going forward, the main challenge for the Big Green Bus going forward will be to locate a viable way to potentially operate the bus without vegetable oil, which is becoming increasingly harder to procure and more expensive, according to Gawler.
The DHE group of seven students, who traveled to Rwanda to help bring electricity to small villages currently off the electrical grid, also encountered roadblocks during their summer trip, according to DHE member Kevin Francfort ’15.
The project offers a clean energy solution to rural villages in the form of battery charging stations powered by hydropower, Francfort said. Two sites are already operating in Rwanda, and this year’s trip aimed to add a third and larger station.
Students ran into bureaucratic issues, which slowed the progress of the rural electrification process, Francfort said. The project was expected to be completed by the end of the summer but should now be running by October.
Francfort said that national authorities withheld their approval for the project for two months, while local officials were much more supportive and welcoming.
A member of the Class of 2012 and a member of the Class of 2010 remained in Rwanda to oversee the completion of the project, Francfort said.
At times, students were concerned that the project would not happen, according to Carrie Fraser ’86 Th’87, the Thayer assistant dean of academic and student affairs and administrative advisor of DHE.
“It was quite a roller coaster, but they were able to proceed with the project,” Fraser said. “They very recently got the government signature. I think they learned a lot about contingency management.”
Fraser said that students on the Rwandan trip learned that a government might not always take the same position that it did a year ago on a given issue.
“It’s very important to check in with all of your sponsors and partners before you go,” Fraser said. “We asked them to check with local government, but it was a changeover in federal officials that caused problems because of lost continuity.”
Francfort said that the group learned not only about hydroelectric power, but also how to coordinate a large group of workers and to address unanticipated challenges.
“I think that oversight is important in terms of safety,” Fraser said. “As advisors we can anticipate some challenges, but I do think that when you’re alone with a group and you don’t have a professor or an advisor with you, you are really forced to think harder.”
Francfort said he hopes to reestablish a sustainable business model for the project in the future so that it can be carried out in other villages.
“I think that the thing I take away most is that projects that start off small and simple can have pretty big effects,” he said. “The radius of impact of a project can be surprising.”
Fraser said that minor alterations such as additional language training for traveling students could be made to the program.
“We also might want to explore the question of the students living amongst community members,” she said. “We also wonder if the students might want to do some volunteer work on the ground, as they might get even closer to the people they want to help.”
Francfort and Fraser said that the trip will likely happen again next summer. Francfort will be the assistant project manager for Rwandan electrification this year.
“The trip’s a possibility, but the project’s [continuation] is a definite,” Francfort said.
DHE sent a second student-led summer trip of four students to Tanzania to work on a loose biomass stove project, Fraser said. Students worked to create stoves that use loose biomaterial such as sawdust or coffee bean husks as fuel.
“They are also working on briquetting, which involves using dried waste material such as sawdust and dried banana or corn leaves to make compressed cakes that can be burned instead of wood or charcoal,” Fraser said. “They are working with local partners to explore proliferation of these technologies.”
The Tanzanian group received financial support from the Thayer School and from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters through a grant overseen by the Dickey Center.
Francfort is a member of The Dartmouth Staff.