Engineeering Outreach in Honduras

Engineeering Outreach in Honduras

By Ben Lewis, Director of Communications and Special Projects

Engineering students have been travelling to Honduras to visit the Montaa de Luz orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS every spring since 2005. Including this year's journey, more than 100 students have taken part in the initiative, which has produced a broad range of projects, including water system improvements and a computer lab for the orphanage.

When the Engineers for Community Service (ECOS) student organization was established in the spring of 2004, the group was interested in local, national, and international projects. But it just so happened that before some of the local projects got off the ground they saw an article in the newspaper about an orphanage in Honduras that was being supported by a local office here, said John Merrill, director of the First-Year Engineering Program and an advisor to ECOS. So they talked to the organization's director and she invited the students to come down on what was basically a mission trip.

Before the student group took its first trip to Honduras, Merrill and another professor visited Montaa de Luz to verify the suitability and engineering value of the site.

Expanding the program

In March 2011 the initiative expanded to a 2nd site further south from the orphanage in the city of Choluteca, where the students work with Ohio State alumni Larry and Angie Overholt, a married couple who live in Honduras.

Last year, the team in Choluteca, led by Roger Dzwonczyk from the College of Medicine, focused on aquaponics and working on another computer lab. This year they will be doing small scale work on wind turbines with locally available material, enhancements to the aquaponics system, and a prototype bicycle-powered station for recharging batteries of various sizes.

Aquaponics is a combination of a fish tank and a small garden. It's a mini ecosystem that depends upon each other synergistically, Merrill said. The fish are generating fertilizer for the plants and the plants are producing oxygen for the water. So you're getting protein from the tilapia that are raised and also raising vegetables as well.

It's a demonstration unit to see how feasible it would be for a small cluster of homes to have one of these to supplement their diet, primarily with the fish as a source of protein. Large scale systems could be developed to provide a small business opportunity for somebody. That's the long range vision.

This year at the orphanage, the overall theme is the water system supply, distribution and quality. The orphanage is expanding and the engineering students will see how far they can push the current system supply to extra buildings without affecting the pumps and keeping the system pressurized while ensuring a water supply that is free from harmful contaminants.

Students prepare for the trip and keep the work going

The students participating in this annual service-learning initiative take a preparatory course during winter quarter. When students return they finish their documentation and give a public presentation for faculty and staff. As the program has grown, students have been excited to keep things moving after they return.

One of the things that happened for the first time last year was that there was such significant interest on the part of the students after they came back from the trip, they wanted to maintain that energy and excitement so they started an informal brown bag where weekly a group of students or even someone from the outside would come in give a talk and that kept the students going, said Howard Greene, research specialist in the College of Engineering and another organizer of the outreach work in Honduras.

Some are engaged in an independent study. The desire is to have the continuity of projects and that's a good thing for the orphanage as well because then there are some great ideas and engineering work that comes out of the service learning trip and the desire is to follow up on that work. If you have a six month gap, it's harder to pick it back up.

Merrill said they've also had students produce scholarly work out of their experience by extending their work into a presentation at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum. Multiple students have gone on the trip to Honduras more than once and others have sought out additional international experiences. It also has influenced their choice of career and additional studies in graduate school. One student decided to focus on sustainable housing for impoverished areas in graduate school based on the trip.

Greene said the compelling need behind the real-world problems in Honduras is a motivating factor for the students. One of the other things I really like about it is seeing students try to wrap their arms around something that isn't fully defined, Greene said. They have to figure out what questions to ask, and not only what questions to ask, but to really translate them between cultural and language barriers. It's an immersion in engineering problem solving that you don't get in the classroom.