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Buckeye students bring light to Haiti school with solar project

Twelve Ohio State students and two advisers spent nine days in Fauge, Haiti, this spring to continue the installation of a 2.6 kW solar electric system at a grade school. The trip, the culmination of a service-learning class, not only gave students the technical experience of working with renewable energy, but also made them realize the benefits of education and of collaborating with peers from a different nation and culture.

“We wired two additional classrooms, one multipurpose room and one garage,” said Rachael Schneider, the president of the student group, Solar Education and Outreach (SEO), that has been working on similar projects in Haiti since 2011. This trip aimed to expand a 1.7 kW solar electric system that the group installed at the school, Institution of Education Borel Chery of Fauge, in 2014 and 2015. The school is owned and operated by the non-profit organization Torch of Hope Foundation.

Engineering students from Ohio State and American University of the Caribbean upon finishing installation of the solar panelsEngineering students from Ohio State and American University of the Caribbean upon finishing installation of the solar panels.  “The increased capacity accounted for both a refrigerator and a water pump,” Schneider said. “The new solar panels were mounted to the roof in a metal frame that can be locked for security.”

Kan Liu, who graduated this month with a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, said the trip allowed him opportunities to solve problems and apply knowledge he learned in class.

“I worked with other engineers, technicians, and Haitian college students,” he said, “and I learned that there are many ways to solve a problem, and each approach is different based on culture, education level, and experience.”

The students, who were various engineering and business majors, had to think on their feet when the work didn’t match their fields of study.

“My major is civil engineering, but I learned a great deal about residential wiring; I wired light switches and outlets among other electrical wiring tasks,” said Georgie Ravelli, who explained that the school, which is completely off the national electricity grid, uses a backup generator when the solar system isn’t providing power.

“The school administrator needed to have a supply of gasoline in order to run the generator which took time out of his day to retrieve. The solar powered electric system that we provided the school with makes no noise and is not emitting harmful gases into the atmosphere. Overall the experience I had in Haiti taught me that renewable energy is not only environmentally sustainable but also benefits the Haitians lives more than I realized.”

Business major John Garriott said he learned a lot about how to make a project sustainable.

“Lots of planning went into how to make sure the system was secure to the roof, and into how to give the people there in Haiti an ‘ownership’ of the project by purchasing the major components in Haiti,” he said. In addition, the students left maintenance documents and instructional manuals for the school leadership’s reference.

While the Haiti project was started by SEO students, it is now a for-credit, service-learning course. International engineering service-learning (IESL) programs began at the College of Engineering in 2004 and have expanded to four locations: two in Honduras, one in Ghana and one in Haiti. Roger Dzwonczyk, an instructor in the Department of Engineering Education, teaches three of the four.

“The IESL programs introduce and teach students the concepts of humanitarian engineering through practical, authentic, real-world international engineering service-learning experiences,” Dzwonczyk said.

Students in these programs collaborate with established in-country partners to assess the needs and then research, design, develop, prototype and plan useful, sustainable technologies to meet these needs. They evaluate the cost, sustainability and local ownership of the projects, as well as the entrepreneurial opportunities that could be developed for the local community as a result of the technologies. Students implement and evaluate these technologies during the travel portion of the program.

“During the semester, the students learn about the history, culture, politics, socioeconomics, healthcare, educational system and specific needs of the host country and its people,” Dzwonczyk said. “Students develop their assessment, research, problem-solving, project management, time management, communications and teaming/engagement skills in a real-world international service-learning environment—one that has different and often limited resources.”

The Ohio State students collaborated on this year’s project with 12 students from American University of the Caribbean (AUC) in Haiti. In addition to installing the solar system addition, the students taught seminars at the university.

“We presented seminars on Electricity Basics, Solar Electric System Design, and Physics of a Solar Cell,” said Schneider, an integrated systems engineering major. “The AUC students practiced the presentations with us during the week, then helped us to present them.”

The students also gave interactive solar presentations for the seventh- and eighth-graders at the school, which has 250 students.

“Some of the kids wore photon hats and some wore electron hats, and they had to high-five each other to transfer energy,” Schneider says. “That was really fun.”

Nick Papa, a mechanical engineering major, said he knows he has many blessings simply because he was born in the right place. “I couldn’t imagine living without electricity,” he said, “and if I can help others have access to it, then I want to help. I also think it’s especially important that we are installing the solar electricity on a school. Nothing helps to lift people out of poverty more than education.”

Schneider was drawn to the Haiti opportunity because she has always been interested in alternative energy solutions.

“The Haiti project stood out to me specifically, because I have had to work to fund my education independently, which has not always been an easy road,” she said. “However, not everyone has the opportunities for education that exist for me. Why wouldn't I use this rare opportunity to learn, give, travel, and enrich lives?”

The service-learning class will continue with the long-term goal to work in this region of Haiti at other sites that could benefit from solar electric power and light, and to continue to partner with AUC. Liu, Papa and Ravelli received travel funding assistance for the trip from Ohio State’s Office of Energy and Environment.

Story by Joan Wall, Office of Energy and the Environment