Students build solar projects in Nicaragua

April 14, 2015
UW-Platteville students in Nicaragua

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Ten University of Wisconsin-Platteville students recently had the opportunity to learn about, build and implement renewable energy technologies while immersing themselves in the culture of a rural community in Nicaragua. Dr. Lynn Schlager, UW-Platteville professor of mechanical engineering, along with Dr. Jorge Camacho, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, led the students on the 12-day trip as part of a short-term, faculty-led study abroad course.

The students spent the majority of the trip in Sabana Grande. This is the fourth trip Schlager has made to the community – including a sabbatical in 2012 – and the second trip with students. The rural community of about 800 to 1,000 people is situated about 30 kilometers from the Honduran border.

The students worked on a variety of projects from organic gardening, composting and making natural insect repellents – to engineering tasks of building and installing photovoltaic solar panels on houses, building solar ovens and a solar cell phone charger.

“Typically we teach our engineering students to design things that improve somebody’s profit – when you are preparing them to work for a company, that’s really what they are preparing to do,” said Schlager. “This experience gives them a view that technology can also do things for people and not just for profit and companies.”

Chloe Haskins, a civil engineering junior from Fond du Lac, Wis., said the most surprising part of the trip was the prevailing kindness of the community members. “Going into the trip, I understood that the country was poor and their lifestyle was different, but I did not expect how kind everyone was and how willing they were to give everything away, even if they had nothing,” she said, recounting a family they stayed with who accommodated them even though a household member was sick, as well as another family who gave up one of their own beds for them. “What we learned was interesting to me, but the people and the way we interacted with the community was my favorite part.”

Being able to witness the immediate benefit of their work was also rewarding to the students. “When we lived with these families, we could really see how our work affected their lives,” said Shane Dennis, a junior civil engineering major from Tomahawk, Wis. “When you install a solar panel here [in the United States], you don’t really see much of an effect, because we can already flip on a light switch and have electricity. When you are installing a solar panel for someone who doesn’t have electricity at all, it’s a completely different reaction.”

“It is amazing to see how little of a project can make such a huge difference,” agreed Haskins.

Both Haskins and Dennis said that the experience has influenced them to pursue more, similar opportunities abroad after graduation. “I have always wanted to do short-term missions when I get out of school,” said Dennis. “Since I really enjoyed this trip it was a big encouragement for me to keep going in this direction.”

The trip was supported in part by a grant from the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement.


Written by: Alison Parkins, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, 608-342-1526, parkinsal@uwplatt.edu

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