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Student engineers build more than just housing this summer in Ghanaian village

Adrienne Cornwall | Sep 2, 2013
Ghana 2013
Evan Boso

Student engineers build more than just housing this summer in Ghanaian village

Adrienne Cornwall | Sep 2, 2013

Evan Boso


When OHIO’s semester switch left students with an early end to the school year in May, four enterprising engineering students from disciplines across the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology took advantage of the extra time off. But rather than take an extended vacation, they hopped on an 11-hour flight from New York City to spend nearly two weeks in the village of Maase, in the West African nation of Ghana.

Working as part of the Russ College’s student organization Bobcats Building a Better World in coordination with Maase village officials and residents, the group arrived continued the work of building teacher housing. The project began seven years ago in the hope of attracting more qualified teachers to one day live in the rural village six hours from the capital, Accra. The participation of Russ College students, faculty and staff – who first became engaged with the village nine years ago – gives them a chance to demonstrate their commitment to create for good, and for students to graduate ready to contribute to their communities.

Over the course of the 13-day trip, students installed the house’s septic system using a self-contained design they developed, and an anaerobic digestion pit. Students had to juggle incorporating results from soil testing, hiring laborers to dig for the installation, and working with elders to meet the needs of residents -- going back to the drawing board each night to adapt designs so work could continue the next day.

All that might be a bit overwhelming for a sophomore. “When we got there, we didn’t really know what we were getting into,” said Nicole Sova, a chemical engineering major from Olean, N.Y. She was joined in Ghana by junior chemical engineering major Claire Hall and seniors Evan Boso, a civil engineering major, and Michael Felgenhauer, an industrial and systems engineering major. “It was interesting to see the differences in the goals between the village chief and the Ghanaians and us. Our plans were for them to put a roof on this winter. Their goal was to put up the roof on this trip. A lot of the timing just didn’t work out the way we had planned.”

Associate Dean for Academics Jeff Giesey, who led the students and initiated the collaboration nine years ago, said they learned firsthand how critical communication, cultural understanding and design adaptability are when trying to make even the best-laid plans come to life.

“Constant redesign and renegotiation of the schedule are key factors in this process,” said Giesey. “Students had to learn flexibility in working with cultural differences.”

Students also learned that a big challenge for the village is access – to information as well as supplies. When the geotech fabric needed for the septic filtration system couldn’t be found, students had to improvise using burlap coffee sacks, which they found readily available in the village. And the formula for the volume of a cone, Giesey said, had to come from memory rather than a smartphone. In the end, the design became a collaboration among Russ College students and the villagers, who lent their knowledge of past problems, solutions and local resources.

“Once we got into it, the group got really close and we accomplished a lot,” Sova said. “The whole thing was just amazing.”

Giesey first traveled to the village in 2004 after connecting with the village chief, Nana K. Owusu-Kwarteng, who at the time was director of the Institute of the African Child and a Ph.D. student in Educational Administration at Ohio University. Giesey has since made six service trips to Maase, with two others led by Russ College faculty. Teams have worked on projects such as a solar-powered water pumping system and analysis of the electric power distribution system in the village. The next trip, planned for this winter, targets the installation of a rainwater collection system.

While the team accomplished their goals of installing the septic tank and some plumbing, they incorporated community-building time as well. They made lists of what they could buy from street merchants, were often followed by groups of children as they worked around the village, and shared meals with village elders, who showed them how to eat their peanut stew the traditional way – with their hands.

The experience left Sova not just with a design experience and cultural memories but also a sense of purpose for her future career. While on a tour with a resident, she observed the painful effects of Ghana’s scheduled power outages -- which are alternated between halves of the country -- on hospitals and their patients. She has since decided to develop her skills toward designing hospital equipment that can run without electricity.

“In engineering, I had always thought research, research, research,” Sova said. “But after this experience, I saw the differences in how adaptable people can be. In engineering, that’s a huge skill to have.”

Colleen Carow contributed to this story.