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Solar Engineering service trip harnesses the gift of light for Tanzanian orphans

Berger and AdornettoEngineering students and faculty from The Ohio State University harnessed the gift of sunshine this summer to help empower an orphanage in Tanzania.

Happiness Wambura, matriarch of the Camp Joshua school for children, said Ohio State’s Solar Engineering and Outreach Service-Learning (SOLAREO) in Tanzania Project took the orphanage out of the dark – spiritually and literally. 

"The work done by the Ohio students made a very big impact into the lives of children. They made us stand out of the crowd,” she said. “They put light in the dormitory and in their lives. Light in every corner.”

When night falls in Africa, newly-installed solar LED lighting now helps the children keep studying into the evening, wash up and prepare for bedtime. The outreach effort is led by the collaborative team of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Professor Paul Berger, Fisher College of Business Professor of Marketing Greg Allenby and Ohio State ECE alumnus Turner Adornetto.

The Solar Engineering Service-Learning program teaches students the concepts of humanitarian engineering by utilizing a practical, real-world service-learning experience. Critical to successful humanitarian engineering work is to listen well to stakeholders and work with local in-country talent and resources. The project focused on providing renewable solar lighting to the Joshua Camp dormitories, mounting solar cells to the roof of the facility and installing electrical wiring with efficient LED lighting.

The outreach trip, which previously serviced needy programs in Haiti, was canceled for student safety three years ago. Meanwhile, Berger brainstormed with Don Hempson, Director of International Initiatives in Engineering, to identify an alternate country site. Many sites were dismissed. With a refocus on Tanzania, an opportunity to reviltilize the project presented itself. Berger recruited Adornetto as Resident Advisor, who he was already co-advising on his Undergraduate Honors Thesis about his experience learning Swahili. Plus, the site selection ended up identifying an orphanage Allenby had already been traveling to assist for several years.

Adornetto is a former recipient of the National Security Education Program’s Boren Scholarship. He lived in Arusha, Tanzania from August 2017 to June 2018, studying Swahili and working for Mobisol, a Berlin-based solar energy company and Tanzania Renewable Energy Association. His efforts in Tanzania are also tied to his passion for filmmaking. Adornetto plans to release his next documentary based on his travels with Ohio State solar project this summer.

“To me, this project represents what we should all strive for in our global village: to share our skills in the pursuit of new ones and to welcome diverse perspectives by building uncommon friendships,” Adornetto said.

Having never traveled outside the United States, Ohio State student Katie Gaffney said being part of the trip was incredible; the people were welcoming and each part of the journey was eye-opening.

“The kids at Camp Joshua were so lovely to be around. The older kids and younger kids all had their own charm. It truly made my heart ache to leave,” she said. ​

Tamir Yankevich joined the study abroad trip because it sounded like a practical way to learn how solar energy is used in a real-world setting. He is studying semiconductor technologies at Ohio State. 

“Being inTanzania helped me understand that there are many ways to learn. For example, many locals learn tradesthrough apprenticeships and by trying and doing things with their hands. During our time there, we got the chance to meet and talk with people who have built businesses around their trades, and it showed me that where there is a will there is a way. In a way, I feel like it gave me the confidence to look outside of the classroom curriculum for answers and information,” he said.

The sincere curiosity of the people he encountered was moving as well.

“Everyone wants to get to know you, and this is reflected in the questions you are asked. They are real, sincere questions that come from a place of curiosity and desire to learn and know more,” he said. “From the local salespeople working in the markets, to the shopkeepers who practice their trades, to the students at Arusha Technical College, this drive to learn and know more about us was always there. It showed me the value of approaching people, situations, and opportunities with this same sort of curiosity and eagerness to learn.” 

The eight attending students were a balanced mix of four females and four males, representing areas such as ECE, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Computer Science or Environmental Engineering.

From a technical standpoint, Berger said, the team learned to design, build and install a 0.6 kW solar system to run 30 LED lights on nine different circuits. 

“Students designed and interfaced with local solar experts and welding shops, for the steel construction of a safe 'battery box' and a rooftop frame to house the two 300W single crystalline solar panels. The whole system runs on 12 volts through two gel-based lead batteries,” Berger said.

Aside from the humanitarian and engineering efforts, the trip is about the experience as well.

The groups worked in the mud and rain throughout the week, Berger said, but made excursions to the Arusha market, hiked up Mt. Meru to a remote waterfall and went on a safari trip through Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. 

“In my opinion, these extra trips, including Arusha Technical College and a bio-sustainable farm, really balanced the trip to be one of the best service learning courses that I have encountered. I think we have a winning formula, and with greater involvement of SOLAREO next year, I think it will be excellent to repeat this course in May 2020,” Berger said. “And just this week, the College of Engineering approved our 2020 offering.”

Article by Ryan Horns ECE/IMR Communications Specialist (Horns.1@osu.edu)