Spring of 2017, I took the Engineering Service-Learning at Montana de Luz course. We communicated with the residents at Montana de Luz, a home for children affected by AIDS/HIV in Honduras, about their needs. Then as a class we created four different engineering projects that we worked on over the course of the semester. Over spring break, we traveled to Montana de Luz and implemented our projects. I was on the Solar Education team. One of the other teams was implementing solar panels to lower the electricity bill at Montana de Luz, and our job as the Solar Education team was to ensure that the children at Montana de Luz understood what the Solar Panel Team was working on, so that the children could feel ownership over the finished product. Our team developed lesson plans to teach the children the basics of electricity and solar power. We used interactive activities to drive home the concepts. We made solar powered night lights and solar powered windmills with the younger children. With the teenagers, we wired solar-powered flashlights and taught them that they could start their own business creating solar-powered appliances since electricity costs are so high in rural Honduras.
My viewpoint on STEM education has shifted through this experience. I grew up learning science through textbooks, PowerPoints, and pre-written chemistry laboratories. Science was black-and-white, and there wasn’t much room for creative exploration. But in Honduras, I saw so much scientific creativity among the young people. On our last work day, we visited a local high school that functioned as a technical school because most of the students would not be able to attend college. We went to the electronics workshop, where we encountered students who were programming a robot they had made themselves, making an LED stoplight, and learning the ins and outs of TV displays. The students were learning how to be electricians. Their teacher told us that he didn’t just want them to be able to repair electronics, but truly understand their fundamentals so as to be able to improve or create them.
I was most impressed by the 8th grade students who joined this high school workshop – one boy made a vacuum cleaner out of a plastic bottle, a battery, and other recycled materials. These young people impressed me with their ingenuity and creativity, using the resources around them to create valuable products. They had limited supplies, and this forced them to be resourceful and think outside the box. I was also inspired by the young man who, when we taught him how to wire a solar-powered flashlight, devised the idea to make a solar-powered phone charger by simply replacing the LEDs with a USB. This young man knew that he and the people around him would value a solar-powered cell phone charger more than a solar-powered flashlight. All of these youths taught me what true engineering is – knowing the needs of your customers, and then using the resources around you to create new and ingenious devices.
My understanding of myself in terms of what I am called to do in the future was transformed through completing my STEP Signature Project. For years I have dreamed of using my engineering skills to create devices to help end poverty around the world. My STEP Signature Project allowed me to do just that. But while I enjoyed the work I was doing at Montana de Luz, I was strangely dissatisfied and I didn’t know why. A specific interaction on Tuesday night of our time in Honduras helped me put my finger on why I felt the way I did. We were invited to the house of a local villager, where we learned how to make homemade tortillas and enjoyed dinner together. At the end of the night, the hostess’ daughter came forward and started playing songs for us on her guitar. What she sang was Christian worship music in Spanish. But she wasn’t just singing the songs – she was praying the songs. She sang with such passion and authenticity. I was blown away by her courage to proclaim her faith boldly in front of so many strangers who didn’t come from a church, but a secular university. We learned that she, at 19, was taking care of two children whose mother had left them. She sang us a song that she wrote herself about being uncertain and afraid, but trusting that God would take care of them.
I am a very faith-filled Catholic, and this display of love and trust in God truly inspired me. I was touched by the whole Latino culture, which valued God and family above everything else. Even though many people in Honduras may not have the financial security that many of us in America have, they have deep joy and hope in the Lord that no money can buy. Even though many of them face great hardship, their family bonds are strong. After meeting this young women who sang to us of her faith and trust in God, I was struck, thinking of the countless young people in America who have no hope, who base their worth on their performance, and who live in families that are distracted and falling apart. I felt God pulling on my heart to turn my focus from healing the physical poverty in other countries to instead healing the spiritual poverty in America. I am still called to give generously of my financial resources to support others who will dedicate their time to healing the physical poverty in other countries, but I feel that God has called me to dedicate my time to healing the spiritual poverty in America.
I have two main take-aways from my STEP Signature Project. For one, this experience encouraged me to take time to be creative and think outside the box. I want to be involved in STEM education in the future, and I will make learning more hands-on and less structured than how I experienced it in my youth, so that the people I teach can use their creative juices to come up with designs that surpass my expectations. In my work as an engineer after I graduate, I want to push myself to think of how I can make products better suited to my customer’s needs, instead of just going with what my company has traditionally done. The young people in Honduras will help me become a better teacher and engineer!
My second take-away is that I want to invest in healing the spiritual poverty in America. This summer I am beginning that mission by working as a counselor at Catholic Youth Summer Camp in Centerburg, OH. I am showing young people in America how God loves them deeply and personally, and wants them to have abundant life full of vibrant relationships and laughter. We create an environment where campers encounter Jesus through caring counselors, high adventure activities, skits and dramas, and small group sharing. My campers feel prepared to bring joy and life back into their families, and encourage their friends to grow closer to the Lord. We are building up leaders that will transform their families and culture – and I can’t wait to see where the Lord takes us next!