October 10, 2012, WILSONVILLE, ORE. — The busload of Oregon Tech students had been driving for two days down a dirt road during their recent trip to Tanzania, when it came upon a crowd of roughly 200 people playing homemade musical instruments. When Dr. Slobodan Petrovic, the trip's leader, got out to investigate, he found that the villagers had heard of the students' coming, and had gathered to welcome them with dancing and festivities. Even after the exhausted group of visitors collapsed on the floor of a nearby health center to rest before beginning their repairs, the celebration continued through the night.
This is just one story of the gratitude and jubilation that met Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) students throughout Tanzania, where they installed solar energy systems for schools and hospitals. The adventure of learning and humanitarian outreach is part of Oregon Tech's BS in Renewable Energy Engineering (BSREE) degree program, the only ABET-accredited renewable energy engineering program in North America. The program is offered at both the Wilsonville and the Klamath Falls campuses.
"One of the common denominators from everywhere we went was that we were greeted with an utmost respect and gratefulness for coming," Dr. Petrovic says. "There was a bonding and exchange of culture occurring wherever we were."
Like much of the region, 70 to 80 percent of Tanzania is without electricity. After volunteering there in 2009, Dr. Petrovic teamed up with students from Oregon Tech's Department of Electrical Engineering & Renewable Energy (EERE) in Portland to help build a sustainable new model for changing the energy outlook in Africa. The trip also provides hands-on experience in the design and installation of renewable energy technologies.
"This is an outstanding program that serves to illustrate the type of practical and relevant educational experiences that our students receive at Oregon Tech," says Associate Provost & Vice President for Research Dr. Mateo Aboy. "It is precisely for these educational opportunities that Oregon Tech is nationally ranked No. 35th among the best undergraduate engineering programs by US News for BS and MS universities."
Each year since 2010, another group of 10 students has traveled to Tanzania to continue Oregon Tech's work there, which provides energy to power lights that allow Tanzanian students to study after dark and medical professionals to perform surgery with adequate illumination. The solar panels also power refrigerators for vaccines, sterilization equipment and charging capabilities for cell phones and computers. The students took eight laptops with them this trip to leave with villagers, allowing access to the Internet as connections allow.
One student, Brendan Motte, had the following to say upon his return: "It was education with plenty of challenge, sunshine, and purpose. It was engineering with heart and a conscience."
This year, the group spent part of the trip revisiting past installation sites, performing maintenance and updates. It was an important aspect of the mission, according to Petrovic, because many non-government organizations are known for visiting once and then never coming back. "So when we came back to some of these schools, there was an element of surprise," he says. "But then they realized that we are serious about what we do, and they were excited to see us back. We promised to come again."
The initial inspiration for the program came about during Dr. Petrovic's 2009 trip to Tanzania, when a terrible accident changed his perspective forever. "There was a girl in the dormitory in one of the schools using a candle hidden under her blanket so she could read. She fell asleep, and her blanket caught fire," Petrovic says. "Thirteen girls died that night. It was totally needless, and it happened because they didn't have a light bulb. I want to prevent these tragedies."
During the recent trip, the students and their professor returned to the site of that accident, installing solar equipment and lights for the boys dormitory to match those that had already been installed in the girls'. They also visited the memorial grounds for the victims of the fire and paid their respects.
In addition to installing solar panels, the group built a large solar water pump to provide drinking water for a village of 3,000 people on Lake Nyasa in southern Tanzania. At the end of the second day of working on the project, they turned the switch and began pumping water. "You can imagine the excitement of the villagers when the water started flowing for the first time in their lives, and all of a sudden there was clean water that they could drink, instead of going to the lake and getting really dirty water," Petrovic recalls.
The last three days of the trip were spent in a Masai village, where the group witnessed one of the tribe's traditional jumping dances in addition to other celebrations surrounding the birth of their host family's child. One of the nights, the Oregon Tech students set up a projector and showed "The Lion King" to the villagers, particularly thrilling the children, who were mesmerized by the projection against the dark night. "It was yet another really special moment in a trip full of such moments," Petrovic says.
The humanitarian work was made possible by donations from Hillsboro-based SolarWorld, the largest U.S. manufacturer of solar panels. SolarWorld donated 30 solar modules to the program, and is invested in continuing to help the program grow.
About Oregon Tech
Founded in Klamath Falls in 1947, Oregon Institute of Technology is one of seven universities in the Oregon University System, and the only public institute of technology in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon Tech provides degree programs in engineering and health technologies, management, communication, and applied sciences that prepare students to be effective participants in their professional, public, and international communities through hands-on learning. Oregon Tech has a full-service, residential campus in Klamath Falls and an urban, industry-focused campus in Wilsonville. The Wilsonville campus is the result of the consolidation of the university's four Portland metro area sites. The university also has sites in Beaverton, West Portland, Salem, La Grande, and Seattle, as well as online degree offerings. Visit www.oit.edu to learn more about Oregon Institute of Technology.
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