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Fall 2007 - Class project

Destination Purdue > Fall 2007 - Class project

Class project leads senior to Tunisia

By Christina Harp

Travel to a foreign country, give a presentation and have the experience of a lifetime. Doesn't sound like your usual class assignment, does it? But that's exactly what Matt House, a senior agricultural and biological engineering major, did last June.

House traveled to Tunisia to present his findings on the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP), which he worked on all year at Purdue under the direction of Rabi Mohtar, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. House's work was part of his senior research and design project. When he chose the project, he was thrilled about the chance to go to Tunisia to learn about their water harvesting methods and the opportunity to present his own erosion models.

Mohtar said he offers opportunities like this to his students because of his involvement in international work. Mohtar is an advisor for the senior capstone experience in which students work in teams to design projects related to contemporary problems in environmental and natural resources engineering.

House worked with another agricultural and biological engineering major, Josh Carter, a senior from West Lafayette, Ind. Together, they developed a process using computer software to analyze the efficiency of Tunisia's soil conservation and water collection structures. Understanding these issues are very important because the small country on Africa'’s Mediterranean coast has a very arid climate. About 40 percent of its land area is part of the Sahara desert.

"The locations we were collecting data on are very dry areas with poor, rocky soils. The water isn't absorbed and just runs off," said House. Water collection is particularly important since Tunisia typically receives a low amount of rainfall, most of it in a few intense storms.

The trip was anything but ordinary for House as he presented his team's data to a class at the Institute of Arid Regions (IRA), a prestigious environmental research establishment in the southern part of Tunisia. "It was really an honor to be able to show them what I had learned and accomplished. It felt good to be able to help them," he said.

Collaborators working to improve water harvesting
By Christina Harp

When Purdue hosted the International Soil Conservation Organization Conference in 1999, Tunisian scientist Mohamed Ouessar of the Institute of Arid Regions (IRA) approached Rabi Mohtar, Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering, about the possibility of working together on a water management project.

The two have been collaborating ever since on efforts to improve water harvesting methods in Tunisa. The pair have made several trips back and forth and have offered students like Matt House, a senior agricultural and biological engineering major from Muncie, Ind., opportunities to exchange ideas and methods with others from across the globe.

Find out more:

Purdue GOinAG
Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Travel and Tourism Guide to Tunisia

Despite that desire to help, his project didn't have the effect his team hoped. His model was tailored for the richer soils of the Midwest, not the rocky soils of Tunisia. His apprehension, however, was unnecessary. Those at the institute appreciated the opportunity to learn about the new computer modeling program and understood the process of modifications needed for new software.

WEPP studies how much erosion comes off a given hillside. House and Carter used the software to evaluate possible locations for dams. If a small dam on a hill is built correctly, it could hold enough rainwater to satisfy water requirements for crops, House said. This would be a huge accomplishment for parched regions of Tunisia and their primary agricultural commodity, olives.

The project not only benefited Tunisia, but also House, who had never been outside the United States, much less on a solo trip to another continent. He was not without guidance and support as Mohammed Oussar and Fethi Abdelli, professors at IRA, hosted him during his 10 days in Tunisia. Abdelli introduced House to his grandmother and aunt, who live in traditional Tunisian underground housing. House described it as a "man-made cave system consisting of a large tubular hole with rooms dug into the walls of the circle."

Upon entering the structure, he found a cozy, well cared-for home that felt air-conditioned compared to the scorching outdoors. The houses maintain a temperature of about 60 degrees year-round. House was fascinated when Abdelli informed him that their home was "like new," only about 200 years old, evidenced by the smooth rock worn down by years of exposure.

House also experienced much on his own. "It was an adventure. It was intimidating, but not dangerous," he said, and called Tunisia the "Switzerland of the Arab world." "They try to stay neutral on politics. Even if they didn't like you, they wouldn't let you know because they want to be good hosts," he said. House was surprised but happy not to encounter any negative sentiments during his time abroad.

In Medinine, home of IRA, he saw El Djem, a 35,000-seat ancient amphitheater built by the Romans. House was not only amazed by the hulking size of the structure but also by the detail in every facet of the architecture. "I was in awe of just being near something so old, and it was right in the middle of town," he said. The historic site stands right next to semi-modern homes and shops, he said.

He quickly adjusted to some of the Tunisian culture, especially the affordability. An eight-hour bus and train trip to the city of Tunis, more 250 miles away, in first-class cost him only $15, pocket change in comparison to a half-hour on a London train for $30. He noted that his diet consisted mostly of lamb, fish and couscous, a light, fluffy steamed grain. He was disappointed that he didn't have a chance to satisfy his curiosity and taste camel, a Tunisian delicacy. As a native of suburban Muncie, Ind., he was surprised to see "only one cow" during his stay.

"It was like a vacation; I could do whatever I wanted and learned so much, not only about the culture but about myself and my area of study. Ten days wasn't enough to take it all in," he said. House wasn't the only one who recognized the impact that his experience had."The trip was a great exposure for Matt; he came back a changed man," Mohtar said.