Yurts Take Shape: Michigan Tech, Calumet High Build Tibetan Shelters

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

t’s a long way from Tibet to northern Michigan, but students at Calumet High School (CHS) comprise a link between the two regions that transcends both time and space.

With help from Michigan Technological University, the Calumet students are building a yurt, fashioned after portable housing used by nomadic Mongolians on the Tibetan steppes for 10,000 years. It’s the first project of a new High School Enterprise initiative sponsored by Michigan Tech.

“It’s not your run-of-the-mill student project,” says Eric Rundman, teacher and advisor at Calumet High. “It’s over and above what students usually encounter. It’s something fun and different. A lot of learning goes on. It’s not a trivial effort.”

Indeed, the CHS students have built a historic structure that is at once simple, functional, sturdy, and handsome. It can be used as a shelter, a vendor’s stand or a hunting camp. There are yurts at Mount Bohemia.

The CHS yurt, twelve feet in diameter and over eight feet tall, suggests both a gazebo and an igloo. The salient feature is 37 feet of latticework wall, tied together with cord, that folds and unfolds like an accordion—compressing into an armful when rolled up. Thirty-nine wood roof members are then tied to the wall. A lightweight steel cable, some plastic ties, two bolts, four screws and four pins comprise the rest of the components.

Tall, lean, with calloused workingman’s hands, Rundman teaches metal shop and welding at Calumet. He came up with the idea of building a yurt when Michigan Tech asked him to jumpstart an initiative that came to be known as the Alternative Housing Enterprise.

Implemented in fall 2007, the high school project is modeled after Michigan Tech’s signature Enterprise Program, in which hundreds of college students work on more than two dozen real-world projects for industry partners. Each Enterprise is run like a business, with budgets, deadlines, and delivery of a product or solution.

Rundman especially likes the hands-on feature of the yurt project. “Students build it, make mistakes, go back and figure it out and try again,” he says.
Among his fifteen students, there are fabricators; a treasurer; a secretary; someone to work on a PowerPoint to publicize the effort; somebody else to craft a technical manual; a photographer and videographer to record the history; and a team to go out into the community and enlist sponsors.

“It’s supposed to operate like a business and be student-driven,” Rundman says. “Eventually, the students will run their own show. Right now I’m doing more than I want to. It’s like a new business. You have to be the ramrod and get it going. But I want to be an advisor, not a driver.”

Accordingly, he tells a student puzzling over some roof members: “You figure it out. I don’t care what you come up with as long as it works.”

The Calumet students work evenings and weekends, typically two to six hours a week. Teamwork is the watchword. “It’s not possible for anyone to do this alone,” Rundman says.

He especially likes that students interact with people outside of the high school—in particular, Michigan Tech, which organized and funded the program, and CJ’s Upholstery, where the students will learn how to sew the canvas that will cover the shelter.

“I have no idea where this will end up because you never know what the students are going to come up with,” Rundman says. “That’s the amazing thing. They’re very creative.”

He envisions a self-sustaining program that might even provide a modest income stream for the school. He wants to draw up and sell plans for the construction of the yurt, develop a website, and mass produce and sell components.

Rundman, a veteran teacher who is completing his first year at Calumet, is helping students build more than a yurt; he also spires to help them succeed. “Teaching is my profession,” he says, “and I want to be good at it.”

Michigan Tech donated $5,000 to the project. The students have $2,700 left, with just the canvas cover to go. Ryan Johnson, treasurer, keeps track of those numbers.

He’s also the court jester in this operation.

“Mongolians did this,” he says while helping erect the structure one evening. “But I don’t think Mongolians had screw guns.”

The yurt is first-rate, he adds. “When we take over China, they’ll know we mean business.”

Rundman suggests decorating the yurt with Calumet logos and colors and setting it up at football games.

“The Calumet Mongolians,” Johnson says.

Then he gets serious. Noting that the students don’t get credit for the Enterprise work, he adds, “The credit is the satisfaction of seeing this come together.”

So far, Calumet is Tech’s only local partner in the high school Enterprise initiative. Two downstate high schools, Cass Tech and Utica, also are participating.

The program is an opportunity for students to “practice engineering and gain a spirit of entrepreneurship,” says Doug Oppliger, a senior lecturer at Tech and director of the high school Enterprise.

A primary goal of the program is to encourage high-school students to go to college and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Oppliger hopes to make the High School Enterprise program self-sustaining through financial support from corporations and foundations and spin-off business.

Meanwhile, it’s his job to advise participating high school teachers, evaluate projects, search for funding and “grow the program.” He wants to involve six high schools in 2008, ten in 2009 and twelve in 2010.

Oppliger has taught engineering fundamentals at Michigan Tech for seven years. Prior to that, he taught high school for twelve years. His experience convinced him that “students learn a lot when they are involved in projects.”

The Calumet High students will display their yurt at Tech’s 2008 Undergraduate Expo, which showcases student work, in mid-April.

Oppliger says of the Enterprise program in general: “It’s going to work.” And he says of the yurt in particular: “This could be a thing of beauty.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.