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ECE students in Haiti: A project with a purpose

While many students spent spring break basking on the beach, seven engineering students spent their time bringing light to school children in Haiti.

The students were part of a larger group of 24 Ohio State students that included majors in education, logistics, Chinese and international policy who went to Haiti as part of Professor Terri's Buci's Haiti Empowerment Project.

The students -- who are members of the Solar Education and Outreach club -- participated in a multidisciplinary service learning project on the island nation. The engineering students’ role for the weeklong trip was to install solar panels that would supply power for lights and other needs at a school in the inland town of Fauge. The engineering team's advisor is Professor Paul Berger.

For sophomore Amanda Broseus, this was the second year she participated in the Haiti effort.

“We did some workshops beforehand, and everybody was prepared to contribute to every aspect of the project,” she said. She also had traveled to Haiti in December to determine what kind of project the group should do and what resources might be needed.

“I was interested in doing this as service learning and to apply the engineering knowledge I’ve learned in class. It put us on the spot for problem solving. You can’t get that in classroom,” Broseus said. “Plus, I wanted to grow as a person and learn about different cultures.”

Read Amanda Broseus' journal.

The first few days in Haiti were spent finalizing plans and getting needed supplies that had not been shipped in advance or brought to the island by the students. They installed three solar panels, lights in two classrooms and the office, and junction boxes and outlets.

This was junior Kan Liu’s second learning trip, but first trip to Haiti.

“This taught me a lot about collaborating with other people,” Liu said. “If this had only been a group of engineers, everyone would have had a common goal and we could have coordinated that, but the different groups of students had different goals. We had to coordinate our activities and the use of resources.”

For example, while the education majors were working with students and teachers in the classrooms, the engineers were limited in the work they could perform because of the noise and distractions their efforts produced. If one group took the car to purchase supplies, the other groups might have to adjust their plans.

Jason Mulligan said there also were logistical challenges and limitations associated with roads in Haiti. The time commitment for acquiring supplies was multiplied because of the lack of access.

“I was impressed by everything you can accomplish as a team,” said freshman Nathan Bratcher. “We had different perspectives, even though we’re all engineers, so I really liked how we worked together and how we talked out issues.”

Bratcher said the students definitely made a difference to the school and the community by the time it completed the project Friday.

“The school is in a really nice area of the countryside, but it’s not connected to an electric grid,” Bratcher said. “It was really gratifying to see the lights turn on, to see this chance for the students and teachers to have access to a better school, and the excitement of the crowd.”

A simple thing like having lights in the school will open more doors of opportunity in the community, Mulligan said. For example, it will allow students and teachers to stay in the building after dark to study and work.

“Even the first night after we finished, one of the teachers was staying late to work because she had light,” Mulligan said.

Bratcher said it was gratifying to be involved in a project that was not about making profit.

“It’s working on a project that makes a difference,” he said. “It’s furthering your own personal development, your own technical development and your interests.”

Roger Dzwonczyk of the College of Engineering’s EEIC Programs said this type of humanitarian engineering is becoming more prevalent for students.

“Service learning mixes classroom experience with a meaningful service project,” he said. “I think the idea of taking what you learn in the classroom, the equations and the drawings and the concepts, and being able to put them to practical use really strengthens the lessons they’ve learned. There are three billion people in the world who don’t have electricity. Haiti has electricity, but it’s only on for two hours a day where we were. The work these students did has long-lasting, clear benefits for the people of Fauge.”

The capstone that brought this experience home for the students occurred on the last day in the country, when they gave a presentation about their efforts to their peers at Université Lumière.

“A dean thanked us for not bringing money, but for bringing education,” Broseus said. “The money is gone instantly, spent on nothing, really. But the education will last and they can really do something with that.”