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Humanitarian Engineering: Home to Paraguay

Being able to use technology and science to help save lives around the world is empowering. That's why students involved in the Humanitarian Engineering (HE) program at The Ohio State University often return home from their work overseas with a renewed sense of purpose.

For electrical and computer engineering (ECE) PhD scholar, Hugo Gonzalez, traveling to the outskirts of Paraguay on an outreach mission this summer awoke some deeper roots. 

Because he grew up in Paraguay, he obviously welcomed the idea of returning home to help. What he didn't expect to find was a whole new sense of connection to his culture.

“Going back to my home country was a very rewarding experience,” Gonzalez said. “But especially our interaction with the Qom people.”

Qom are indigenous tribes found in specific areas across Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Among the first settlers of the land, the people resisted modern encroachment for several centuries, and today live mostly in slums because of the loss of their land and livelihood. 

“Working as a volunteer in Asuncion and later as a field engineer in the rural areas in Paraguay, I could witness the precarious living conditions and the lack of opportunities of many families in underprivileged communities,” Gonzalez said. “It became clear to me that appropriate technology designed by engineers could play an important role in helping to close the opportunity gap for people in need.”

The HE center at Ohio State is directed by ECE professor Kevin Passino, who offers a course in the subject. A total of 12 volunteers made this summer’s journey to Paraguay from Aug. 11 to 22, composed of both graduate and undergraduate engineering students from Ohio State. Latin American experts traveled along to assist in their efforts.

The goal of each outreach mission is always to teach engineering as a way to help advance underserved populations. Problem-solving through technology.

Passino said their mission to Paraguay consisted of four parts. Figure out the immediate need of the community. Work on a project to address that need. Then, head into the local schools or university to help train future engineers to continue this humanitarian work.

When it came to helping the Qom people, Gonzalez said, the engineers performed a needs assessment, which resulted in them designing and building an efficient cooking stove for a family living in the town of Cerrito, Paraguayan Chaco. 

“We then taught a short course at the Engineering School in the Universidad Nacional de Asuncion about the development of local HE projects,” Gonzalez said. "We also conducted STEM education activities with Arduino boards in two high schools from underserved neighborhoods in Asuncion."

Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on user-friendly hardware and software, typically for controlling lights, motors, and other actuators for use in making interactive projects like traffic signals.

Gonzalez said being able to motivate local engineering students to join the Ohio State team for the stove implementation was "very gratifying."

“They plan to continue our work there, which in my opinion is the main contribution of this trip," he said.

Gonzalez said electrical and computer engineers, in particular, are continually pushing the boundaries in the quest for providing technology that extends human capabilities for sustainability and well-being. 

“My research area in control systems provides me with an array of tools that can be applied in a broad spectrum, from robotic systems to social systems. I like that flexibility,” he said.

The HE journey to Paraguay was supported by the IEEE Foundation and IEEE Humanitarian Activities Committee, in collaboration with Fundación Paraguaya, the IEEE Section/Paraguay, and the Benjamin Franklin Science Corner. 

Other participants joining Gonzalez and Passino from the Ohio State Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering were Lianna Brown, Isabel Fernandez and Kevin Everson.