For my STEP project, I decided to participate in a service-learning trip through the engineering department in which students used their spring break to travel to the Montaña de Luz orphanage in Honduras to design and implement solutions to any problems they may have. As part of this trip, I enrolled in a 3 credit hour class for which students researched solutions to their respective projects, documented the process, and created presentations about their work. For my project, I joined 3 other students in fixing a wind turbine and mapping out a poorly planned and potentially unsafe electricity distribution system so that improvements could be made in the future.
While this project was the main focus of my trip, any time that wasn’t spent on work was devoted to playing with the kids at the orphanage, getting to know my classmates, and immersing myself in Honduran culture as well as I could in just one week. At first, it was difficult for me to really engage with many of the Hondurans due to my inability to speak Spanish. In addition, I am cyncial and somewhat unsociable by nature, so I was fairly reluctant to engage with other people during my trip. However, the everyone at the orphanage caught me off guard with their overwhelming kindness, and I believe that I am now a more welcoming and accepting person because of it.
There are many examples of how kindness caught me off guard during this trip, and I could not hope to cover them all. However, one thing that all the students on this trip agreed on is that many of the Hondurans easily proved that kindness can cross any language barrier. Despite difficulty communicating, the children and workers at Montaña de Luz persistently welcomed us into their activities. We played soccer and badminton with the kids and played jokes on each other. One of the students even had lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) opportunity of experiencing the Honduran tradition of throwing raw eggs at someone on his/her birthday. They taught us how to hand wash our clothes and helped us with our projects. We all had a common goal of making the orphanage a better place, and it really allowed us to experience the reality that anyone can get along despite barriers that may make it difficult.
In addition to learning how kind people can be, I also re-learned what it means to be an engineer. At Ohio State, engineering students spend hours upon hours learning math and science that we may never actually use in practice which goes against the pragmatic nature of engineering. In Honduras, many people without a college education understand practical applications of technology better than the Ohio State students did. With such people easily designing solutions to their problems, I had to wonder if engineering actually required an education or just an active imagination and desire to solve problems.
One particular person named Jorge, who was the general technician at MdL, taught himself how to engineer solutions to problems in ways that none of the students on the trip could even imagine themselves doing. While we were there, he effortlessly designed and welded together scrap metal to be used as a casing for a slip ring on the pole for my group’s wind turbine. He also welded together parts for another group’s solar panels. It is rumored that he fixed a leaking freshwater supply system by melting two pvc pipes together during a previous year, fixed motorcycles after learning to completely disassemble them, and fully understand the problems with MdL’s electricity distribution system. With MacGyver as his inspiration and a desire to improve the lives of the kids at MdL, he was truly able to accomplish anything. Yet, he never received a college education and has no degree saying that he is an engineer. With the ability to fix seemingly any problem that the world threw at him by manipulating technology, he essentially gave himself his own engineering education, proving that a college education isn’t necessary if you are motivated to learn on your own.
Finally, this trip showed me that I am capable of engineering solutions in the real world. Before this trip, I had not had a chance to apply what I have learned from class to a real world problem, and I was eager to do something impactful. In addition to gaining the confidence to solve problems in the world, I learned a lot about electricity, practical applications of renewable energy, how electricity distribution systems work, and I even learned a little spanish. This knowledge may become useful when I eventually have a home of my own. I also now have an experience that I can talk about in interviews, so this experience may help me get a job after graduation. Overall, I had a really enjoyable experience and gained a lot from it. I would highly recommend this trip or a similar experience to any engineering students going through the STEP program.