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Buckeyes bring a little light to Honduras orphanage

Eye-opening and humbling—that’s how Chris Ratcliff describes his first visit to Montaña de Luz, a refuge for Honduran children affected by HIV/AIDS, in 2010 as an undergraduate enrolled in an Ohio State engineering service learning course.

Lecturer Chris Ratcliff (far right) and 14 Ohio State engineering students spent their spring break working at a Honduran orphanage.

Ratcliff, now a lecturer with the Department of Engineering Education, led the 2017 Montaña de Luz trip and saw how serving abroad can benefit current Buckeye engineering students and the much-needed difference they can make for a worthy organization.

Honduras is the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Montaña de Luz—or mountain of light—sits on top of a summit located 90 minutes east of the capital, overlooking a valley of sugar cane fields and small villages.

Home to 30 to 40 children, it’s one of many orphanages in Honduras, Ratcliff explained. Due to a lack of social programs, many parents facing hardships are unable to feed, clothe and educate their children and have little choice but to give them up. 

Since 2005, a contingent of Buckeye engineers have spent their spring break at Montaña de Luz. This year’s goal was to improve the sustainability of the orphanage’s electric power supply and food system.

Working in teams, the 14 students had just 10 weeks from the start of the spring semester to conduct research, gather supplies and create detailed plans to tackle various projects.

Thanks to a $10,000 EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) grant from IEEE, the Buckeye engineers were able to install a 1,200 watt solar panel system that supplies power to key kitchen appliances, including the refrigerator, a freezer and some lights. It will help mitigate the cost of conventionally supplied power and food spoilage due to blackouts.

Ratcliff was impressed with everything the students accomplished.

“The students did great. For example, the solar team basically had two months to become experts in installing a pretty big solar energy generator,” Ratcliff said. “It’s a challenging project, but they did really well.”

Students used an A-frame to find the contour lines of the land along a hillside near the orphanage and marked them with spray paint for future planting.

Ally Fomich, a civil engineering major with a double minor in humanitarian engineering and Spanish, was part of the group that implemented drought-resistant, ecologically restorative practices to help turn a degraded tropical hillside located next to the orphanage into farmable land.

After conducting extensive research, Fomich and her team decided to pursue an established strategy, called sloping agriculture land technology, to restore the land.

“It involves using the contours to your advantage rather than trying to destroy them to create a flatland for farming,” she said. “We developed a specific order of plants, the spacing and which type of plants would go in each crop row, in order to develop it into fertile land over the next few years.”

Students also repaired and improved a 600 watt wind turbine generator installed by a previous Ohio State team and updated the orphanage’s electrical distribution system.

Education and sustainability have become an increasingly important part of the orphanage’s mission, Ratcliff explained, as Montaña de Luz evolved from a hospice for children with HIV/AIDS to a residential orphanage thanks to the availability of anti-retroviral medications. Now, as many of the children are becoming young adults, staff and volunteers are focused on helping educate and equip them will the skills needed to become productive members of society.

Ohio State students contributed to those efforts by teaching the kids about electricity and renewable energy using different age-appropriate projects, from decorating solar-powered nightlights made out of mason jars to assembling solar-powered flashlights using rechargeable AA batteries, LEDs and recycled materials. 

Max Kross (’17, computer science and engineering) decided to go to Montaña de Luz in order to apply the lessons he’d learned in various humanitarian engineering classes in the real world. For him, the best part of the trip was seeing the ingenuity the Hondurans displayed in spite of the difficult socioeconomic conditions.

Education team members taught the kids about renewable energy through discussions and hands-on projects.

“You can see the kids’ potential for innovation and it’s phenomenal that Montaña de Luz gives them the opportunity to live, grow and potentially become innovators themselves,” Kross said. “Knowing that through education we can empower them and help them come up with creative solutions themselves is really exciting.”

While other Buckeye engineers focused on Montaña de Luz, Engineering Education Assistant Professor David Delaine spent the week researching the extent to which international immersion experiences impact student empathy. He collected pilot data during the trip and has future plans to study a wide range of community engagement activities, from domestic service-learning courses to volunteer activities.

“That’s the foundation for my research, determining to what extent community engagement and informal learning environments can provide students with empathy, emotional intelligence and other types of professional skills,” Delaine said.

While it’s clear that humanitarian trips like this have a strong place in engineering programs, Delaine believes it’s important to understand their impact on student learning and how to make them as effective as possible.

“Ohio State has done a really good job at fostering the development of these programs,” he said. “And now that we are committed to performing research on them it should provide for increased levels of returns.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu