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Solar engineering service trip harnesses gift of light for Tanzanian orphans

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

Students and others install solar panels on a dormitory roof.Installing the solar panels on a dormitory roof.

The Solar Engineering Service-Learning in Tanzania Project took the orphanage out of the dark—spiritually and literally—said Camp Joshua school matriarch Happiness Wambura.

"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 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 Marketing Professor Greg Allenby and 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 to stakeholders and work with local in-country talent and resources. The project focused on providing renewable solar lighting to the Camp Joshua dormitories, mounting solar cells to the roof of the facility and installing electrical wiring with efficient LED lighting.

After the outreach trip to Haiti was canceled for student safety three years ago, Berger brainstormed with Don Hempson, director of International Initiatives in Engineering, to identify an alternate country site.

Once Tanzania was identified as a suitable location, Berger recruited Adornetto as resident advisor. 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. Adornetto’s efforts in Tanzania are also tied to his passion for filmmaking. He plans to release his next documentary based on his travels with the 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.

The eight attending students represented a variety of majors, including ECE, mechanical and aerospace engineering, computer science and environmental engineering.

Having never traveled outside the United States, environmental science major 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,” she said. “The older kids and younger kids all had their own charm. It truly made my heart ache to leave.” ​

ECE major Tamir Yankevich, who is studying semiconductor technologies, joined the education abroad trip because it sounded like a practical way to learn how solar energy is used in a real-world setting. 

“Being in Tanzania helped me understand that there are many ways to learn. For example, many locals learn trades through 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,” he said. “I feel like it gave me the confidence to look outside of the classroom curriculum for answers and information.”

From a technical standpoint, 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,” Berger said. “The whole system runs on 12 volts through two gel-based lead batteries.”

Students also made excursions to the Arusha market, hiked 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,” Berger said. “I think we have a winning formula … and it will be excellent to repeat this course in May 2020.”

Original story by Ryan Horns, Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering