WILKES-BARRE —Some students choose their spring break destinations based on the amount of sunshine they’ll encounter. A group of six Wilkes University seniors also factored the sun into their plans, but there will be no relaxing — or even running water — on the itinerary.
The students – four engineering students, one majoring in communications and one business student – have developed a solar energy system that will provide electricity to charge iPads and other devices, making Internet access possible for the first time to children in a school in the impoverished village of Gush Kande, Bangladesh.
The group will leave Friday and return March 8. While in Gush Kande, the group will install a homemade solar panel-topped shed that will power a generator powerful enough to charge each of the five iPads that the university is donating.
The students, each of whom received college credit for his work, were tasked in September to develop, design and build an alternate energy source to power devices that will allow Internet-accessible devices to work in a town without electricity.
“We can’t understate how undeveloped this village is,” said Eric Danko, 22, a senior mechanical engineering major from Dallas. “The infrastructure out there is nonexistent.”
Another student laughed at the premise of supplying “alternative energy” to the village. “You’d think there would be an energy source we’re building an alternative to,” said Ryan Wood, a 22-year-old communications major from Kingston who will be filming the trip to make a documentary.
Although there is a river running by the village and plenty of wind, solar energy seemed the best bet for a region that gets 12 hours of sunlight a day most of the year.
Wilkes became involved in the project after a student in its doctor of education program, Ty Frederickson, shared his dream of bringing Internet access to Gush Kande. Frederickson is a teacher at ABA, an international school in Muscat, Oman. Frederickson has been working with the school in Bangladesh since 2010 and noted that many teachers can’t get to the village, which is three hours from the nation’s capital of Dhaka. But by getting the students on the World Wide Web, teachers can come to them via the Internet.
Perwez Kalim, a professor of mechanical engineering at Wilkes, said he was impressed not only with the end product, but also with the dedication and sense of pride the students took over the the entire process.
And, he noted, it’s a real-world education. “They’re learning a lot of things they’ll need tomorrow as an engineer: team work, designing, applying,” Kalim said.
The group came together in September for the task and immediately began brainstorming the best, and most cost-efficient, way to not only design the project, but also to ship the parts to the rural area.
They decided that a $699, 7-by-7-by-7 plastic shed would be a good starting point. The team developed a mounting unit on which to adhere the four solar panels and determined how to best run the wiring into the shed and connect it to a $2,499 generator kit. It took four months and countless hours of designing, testing, construction and tweaks to get it right, but they did, they said.
The expertise of electrical engineering students Christa Tutella, 22, of Wilkes-Barre, and Suliman Alhojairir, 29, of Saudi Arabia, coupled with mechanical engineering students Danko and Dustin Hough, 21, of Chambersburg, combined for that facet of the project. Then it was up to Joshua Haag, 22, of Bethlehem.
The business major came up with the budget and concentrated on the logistics of travel and shipping the item in pieces, plus the tools required to construct it once more, to Asia. The total cost will approach $40,000, with all of it being paid by Wilkes University or members of its board of trustees.
At first, the plan did not involve the students heading to Bangladesh to install the equipment, but as the students neared completion they felt a deep connection to the work they had done. “We want to see it to the finish,” Danko said.