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Students Give Back To Community With Ghana Sustainable Change Program

By Kari Fox

“Azonto” is the word Hayden Shelby uses to sum up the study abroad trip that she and a group of 13 other Ohio State students took to Offinso North District in Ghana.

“It’s a famous Ghanaian style of dance that we all spent the whole trip trying to learn. The Azonto has a few base motions, but it’s ultimately about spontaneity and creativity. The best Azonto-ers never repeat the same motion twice,” says Shelby, a master’s student in city and regional planning. “I think that combination of a solid base with layers of free-form movement describes our trip perfectly.”

The trip was part of the Ghana Sustainable Change Program, a three-way collaboration between the Ohio State City and Regional Planning program in the Knowlton School of Architecture, the Department of Planning at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, and the Offinso North District in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. This is the third year of a multi-institution interdisciplinary collaborative to support community prioritized development initiatives in the Offinso North District, Ashanti Region of Ghana.

Charisma Acey, assistant professor of city and regional planning, received a Battelle Endowment for Technology and Human Affairs (BETHA) award for this year’s trip. The award is available to faculty across campus who look for ways to combine technology and social development. Acey was chosen as the recipient after she pitched a project called E3: Sustainable Development Solutions for Energy, Environment and Equity in Africa that was to be implemented as part of the Ghana Study Abroad program.

“(The award) enables our students to collaborate with the district in the design of sustainable development solutions tied to local priorities for development,” says Acey. “It lets us bring creativity, technology and outreach together.”

Prior to the trip, the graduate and undergraduate students were enrolled in city and regional planning studio classes in spring 2012 to plan their projects and prepare for the trip with trip leaders, Acey and City and Regional Planning Lecturer Jamie Greene. Besides city and regional planning, the students came from various university departments, including landscape architecture, electrical and computer engineering, public health, public policy and international relations.

Eight student-led projects were implemented on the trip this year, some new and some continuations from the previous year. The projects ranged from mapping a city to installing solar-powered systems.

“We tried to build on what we worked on last year, especially the areas that the community expressed they wanted to focus on,” says Acey.

MapOn, a key project, was one of the newer projects that resulted from community feedback. It was supported by a donation of iPads and mobile GPS units from the College of Engineering, and a grant from the Battelle Endowment of Technology and Human Affairs. With the iPads, students were able to work in the field to collect data and assist with improving service delivery and long-term planning on the ground.

Students utilize iPads for the MapOn project to collect data and assist with improving service delivery and long-term planning.

Acey explains that there is no land use base map of the Offinso North District, and because of this and a lack of technology, a lot of decisions concerning land use planning are made off of instinct alone. Since the population is growing, the city needs a way to manage and direct that future growth.

“Imagine trying to do long term planning with no base map of your town,” says Acey. “That’s the position that the city is in.”

The goal of MapON is to create a base map for Akomodan and train district staff on how to use the GPS equipped iPads, and how to do mapping using an app called GIS Pro. Additionally, the MapON team trained each of the student groups in the use of the iPads and GPS receivers to map data related to the other projects. This allowed students to track the impact of the Ghana Sustainable Change Program and contribute to the overall mapping effort. The group took 14 iPads on the trip, leaving five behind for the community to use.

Teaching the citizens how to use the iPads was a major advancement for the project.

“We were excited to train the citizens how to use the technology, because this way they’re able to use it long after we’re gone and can continue to do mapping in the area,” says Acey. “This was a big thing to them, so we were really happy to get to help.”

Acey says that the OSU and KNUST students pushed the envelope with the technology past her expectations.

 “They figured out how to put survey questions in the software on the iPads, so when they were going around doing housing assessments they could take a picture, open up the survey, ask a question about the conditions, and tie it all together,” explains Acey. “They went beyond even what I thought was possible.”

At least one of the students, Adam Sauer, an electrical and computer engineering major, experienced how the trip helped him in his studies.

“I learned a great deal about preparing for a project, and that plans change,” says Sauer. “I had a pretty good idea of my schedule before I arrived, but as the solar panel supply delivery didn’t go as planned I had to change my focus completely to the energy projects.”

Sauer worked mainly with Augustine and William, two students from the KNUST school, and he says he got a lesson in how to work through language barriers.

“As we worked on biogas digesters I realized Augustine was a good solo worker which was good, but we were pressed for time,” Sauer says. “I tried to jump in, but he would tell me that he could handle it. I realized I needed to push through the language barrier and communicate to him that we should break up the tasks to be more efficient. It was one of the first icebreakers and we worked very smoothly for the rest of the project.”

Sauer says as the three young men worked they went back and forth in conversation comparing cultures and imagining future projects.

“By the last day we all ended up being great friends,” Sauer says.

Sauer found the experience of being in Ghana a learning experience that could never be replaced.

“It’s one thing to experience this idea while listening to an inspiring speaker, but what this trip gave me was a glimpse into just how different our lives are,” says Sauer. “Now I know that I have the ability to really make a difference in their lives.”

Charisma Acey (middle), presents KNUST students (left), with a donation of five iPads for community use. Also pictured: Chris Zapp, Maggie Allen, Jamie Greene.

Prior to the trip, some students had fears and concerns about how much they would actually be able to help, but by the end of the trip, the group could see the many positive impacts they made.

Acey says she thinks the biggest impact isn’t necessarily building something with materials, but giving people a voice.

“Just being there, to listen, these people sometimes have never been asked to give their opinion about how to better the community,” she says.

The solar water disinfection project, a community education project that aimed to introduce the concept of using clear PET (PolyEthylene Terephthalate) plastic bottles and solar energy to improve the quality of contaminated sources of drinking water, was one example that enabled the people to speak up.

“Because of this project, it brought the district’s water and sanitation staff to the community and then the community was able to air their grievances. Those conversations wouldn’t have happened without this project,” says Acey. “That really meant something. In some ways, it’s bringing people together.”

Acey recounts a memory of a student breaking down in tears at the same time the people expressed how happy they were just to be asked a question and be able to give their opinion on the quality of their surroundings in the hope that something might be able to be done about it.

“You take it in and are enjoying your time in Ghana but you know, sometimes it gets to you when you see the stark difference in living standards between the US and some of the communities there,” Acey says.

Acey knows that the work in Ghana isn’t complete, but she hopes their role was a link for the community and a better life.

“We don’t believe solutions come from the outside, so we want to support home grown solutions and play catalyst,” she says. “The trip was about the people, relationships and the connections that have emerged out of it.”

Tags: Students