Engineering Service Learning in Haiti

Culver McWhirter

For my STEP project, I participated in a humanitarian engineering project in Haiti. This project involved an engineering course where we designed a solar power system, did fundraising to pay for components, and then spent a week in Haiti to install the solar power system on the school.

Going to Haiti for this engineering project was the first time I had ever flown on a plane or traveled outside the country, so it was a big step outside of my comfort zone. Spending a week in another country and working from sunrise to sunset to install solar panels is something I never could have imagined myself doing when I first arrived at OSU. However, this experience has transformed me into a more adventurous individual; I now want to travel to other countries to work on more engineering projects like this one. My whole career outlook has also transformed since this project has made me want to use my electrical engineering degree in a way that can help people all over the world by providing them with off-grid electricity from renewable sources. This project has also transformed me into a better engineer who can succeed even with limited time and resources, which is a skill set that will be useful to me for the rest of my life.

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My STEP project involved travelling to Fauge, Haiti for an engineering project that provided power to a local school using solar energy. I was part of a team of 12 OSU students who worked alongside local Haitians from Fauge and Haitian students from the American University of the Caribbean (AUC). We completed the end of a several-year-long project by reorganizing the power system to make better use of resources, and by adding an additional three 300 W solar panels, four 12 V deep cycle batteries, one 60 A PWM charge controller, and one 2.2 kW inverter to the system. The power system provides the school with electricity for water pumps, outlets for charging devices, and indoor and outdoor lighting. While we were installing the power system, if we needed to get more supplies it took almost a whole day to travel to the closest town, Les Cayes, purchase components, and come back. This limited access to resources forced me think on my feet and work with what we had, which was a great learning experience and made me a better engineer.

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While in Haiti, we also presented lectures on electricity basics, solar power systems, and the physics of photovoltaics to the AUC students and did a fun learning activity with the children at the school to teach them about solar energy. These were possibly my favorite moments of the trip because seeing how excited the kids were to play around with little solar powered cars showed me how much of a positive impact engineering can have; just by having electricity, the education of these children can improve drastically. Also, teaching them how solar power works might inspire them to become engineers themselves, and in turn they can help even more people. Seeing the effect this project had on the kids at the school is the main reason that this experience has transformed me and made me want to become a humanitarian engineer.

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Some of my favorite parts during my week spent at the school came from just joking around with AUC students while working, teaching them about solar energy, and learning from them about the civil engineering aspects of the project like mounting the solar panels onto the school’s roof. I also enjoyed playing soccer with the kids who lived near the school; it was something I looked forward to every day even though it was incredibly hot outside. On top of forging new relationships with people from Haiti, I also became incredibly close with my fellow OSU students who were working on the project and I now consider them some of the best friends I’ve made during my time here at Ohio State. This is one of the reasons why I want to participate in more projects like this while I’m at OSU, and I am planning to go on a similar engineering trip to Ghana next fall.

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Overall, taking part in this project was a life-changing experience. Travelling outside of the country for the first time and working day in and day out to provide a school with off-grid electricity was a big step outside of my comfort zone, but I feel that it has made me a much better engineer and person. Learning to make the most of what you have and being able to think on your feet are crucial engineering skills, and these are definitely some of the biggest lessons I learned in Haiti. The experiences I shared with the people from Haiti are something that I’ll never forget, and working on this project has given me a new direction in life to be a humanitarian engineer and use what I’ve learned about electrical engineering at OSU to help provide people with electricity around the world.

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