New service learning course features multi-cultural collaboration

Posted: May 20, 2021
Aerial view of Las Lomitas, Honduras
Las Lomitas, Honduras

After working for years to create a sustainable community development course that makes a lasting positive impact in Honduras, Instructor Howard Greene never imagined launching it online, during a pandemic. But the lessons learned by overcoming this challenge will benefit Ohio State students taking the course and the communities they serve for years to come.

The Sustainable Community Development – Honduras course enables students to use problem-solving mindsets to develop and support community-driven development initiatives. Students work in collaboration with third-year environmental science and development students from Zamorano University in Honduras and the nonprofit Heart to Honduras.

“This is the most cutting-edge thing from an outreach, service and engineering education perspective that I have ever been involved with,” said Greene, director of K-12 education outreach for the College of Engineering. “Co-teaching a service learning course with a non-English speaking university and collaborating remotely on development work flies in the face of what one would think possible during a pandemic.”

This spring students worked on rainwater harvesting approaches with the small rural village of Las Lomitas, located in northwest Honduras at the top of a mountain. The village’s 65 families only have access to a community water system for three hours a week. Although the region receives 120 inches of sporadic rainwater per year, capturing and storing it safely is a challenge.

“They already have some rainwater catchment systems,” explained first-year pre-computer science and engineering major Nick Johnson. “Our goal is to make that more efficient by providing systems for the variety of buildings that they have.”

The international cross-university initiative—a first for co-instructor Laura Suazo and for Zamorano University—has been a positive learning experience for students at both universities.

“My students are excited about the course and very motivated about the community work that is needed,” explained Suazo, a professor in Zamorano University's Environmental Science and Development Department. “The students valued learning from different perspectives, different countries, different cultures, different contexts and development approaches. But at the same time, they share the spirit of being at a university, learning how to find solutions for common problems that many people face.

“We are very thankful to The Ohio State University, and especially to Dr. Greene, for inviting us to get together for this course. Hopefully this is the beginning of a long experience together.”

The seven Ohio State and 33 Zamorano University students attended joint classes on Mondays, in addition to separate weekly lectures. Co-instructor Patrick Sours, a senior lecturer in civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and food, agricultural and biological engineering, and guest lecturers, including Ohio State faculty and alumni, shared their expertise in water management and related topics.

Screenshot of a class meeting on Zoom showing students and their instructors.
Students and their instructors during a joint class held via Zoom.

Working in six teams, students recommended rainwater harvesting approaches for different house sizes, roof types and conditions, and budgets that community members can tailor to their specific needs. Before proposing any technical approaches, students first studied all aspects impacting the project and ensured they understood the community’s needs and priorities.

“We're being very careful to understand the context of what we're doing, the history, culture, economy, a whole lot of things that bear upon doing development work successfully,” Greene explained. “We're really getting to know the community that we're working with. They’re very vested in this work. We're simply coming alongside them for a period of time, working with them and giving some ideas and options they might consider.”

Although the language barrier was a challenge at times, working together with Zamorano University students, who are from throughout Central America, has been invaluable for the students.

“All of my group members are from Central America. Having that cultural perspective, growing up there and going to school in Honduras for three years is very helpful,” said Josh Harris, an industrial and systems engineering major. “On top of the fact that they also speak the native language of the communities we're working with.”

Prior to taking the course, Harris wasn’t sure what kind of value an industrial and systems engineer could add to a rainwater management project.

“Being an engineer at Ohio State has taught me how learn something I have no prior experience with and how to use what I've learned in an impactful way,” he said. “It's encouraging to work on a project that not only has an impact, but is also showing me what I am capable of as an engineering student.”

After learning about the community’s priorities, students determined what can be accomplished together. Students in future classes will help residents implement the solutions and assess their impact, Greene said.

Science and technology exploration major Alissa Cuffy and her team chose to focus on the lowest income house with the poorest roof quality in order to impact the most people.

Photo of a small house in Honduras and a sketch of a proposed rainwater catchment system
Cuffy and her team designed a low-cost catchment system that uses a tarp and reusable materials to collect and store up to 500 liters of rainwater.

“Right now we're looking to use recyclable materials and other discarded materials like tires to build a water harvesting system that will be affordable and feasible to make within a family's budget,” she said.

As a Humanitarian Engineering Scholar, Cuffy has enjoyed being able to get involved with a humanitarian engineering project during her first year at Ohio State.

“I'm very grateful to be a part of this class. Even though it's virtual, I still feel like I'm learning lots of new things,” explained Cuffy, who plans to also pursue a minor in Spanish. “It's nice being able to practice our second languages and getting to work on something we're passionate about.”

Although Greene hopes that next year’s course can end with Ohio State students spending two weeks in Honduras as originally designed, he plans to continue having students from both universities work together remotely throughout the semester.

“Most of what we're doing now together, I wouldn't change a bit,” he said. “Because these students can't work on a team without getting together for a significant period of time every week and learning about each other.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,