Skip to main content

Humanitarian Engineering Students Go Global with Solar Suitcase

Photo of middle school students
The Enspire design competition transformed local eighth graders into Jacobs School students for a day.

When you board an international flight, you usually don't pack a pair of 50-watt solar panels in your checked baggage. But that's what four Jacobs School undergraduates did, when they travelled to Mbita, Kenya as part of the Global TIES - Teams in Engineering Service - Program. The team visited the site of their humanitarian engineering project, which is aimed at bringing renewable energy to an off-the-grid island community. Utilizing the solar panels, the students created a portable charging station that can power and recharge cell phones, lanterns, water purifiers, medical devices, and other technologies that can improve quality of life for Mbita residents. The solar prototype is part of a larger Global TIES project to help the San Diego Chapter of Engineers without Borders bring electricity to a new technology and adult education center in Mbita. The center will provide Internet access and technical training programs to the residents of Mbita and their neighbors.

"It was a really powerful experience for all of us involved... to travel under the context of being able to make a difference. It opened our eyes to how many problems there were that could be easily solved by students, by engineers," said Anita Prasad, mechanical engineering ('10) and a team leader for the Global TIES project in Kenya.

"Most of the people we met didn't have access to electricity or running water, but many had cell phones," said Noah Paul- Gin, a mechanical engineering major ('10) and another member of the project. Villagers now take their phones to larger towns on the electric grid in order to charge them. The students hope their solar prototype will one day offer people in Mbita and across the developing world access to reliable, inexpensive and renewable electricity at home. But first, the students need to make their portable charger smaller, lighter, and more durable. Other students who made the trip to Kenya were Andrea Wong, aerospace engineering ('10) and Priya Raval, bioengineering ('10). The trip was a culmination of five quarters worth of research and design work, including learning as much as possible about Kenya in general and Mbita in particular.

This solar powered charging station is just one example of the many ways Global TIES students are improving lives locally and globally. Global TIES educates students in the principles of humanitarian engineering and sustainable community development.Students participate in multidisciplinary teams, advised by senior faculty and researchers, that work in partnership with not-for-profit organizations or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address the needs of the communities they serve. "It's a win-win. Communities get much needed technical assistance and expertise, and the students get a lifetransforming educational experience. We hope that we are planting a seed and that the students will continue to engage in humanitarian efforts throughout their lives," said Mandy Bratton, Ph.D., director of the program, now in its sixth year. Global TIES was one of three campus programs that earned UC San Diego a place of distinction on President Barack Obama's Honor Roll of Higher Education Community Service.

"I think programs like Global TIES can really empower students - and help change the world," said Prasad. For information about current projects, go to: http://ties.ucsd.edu. To get involved as a mentor or supporter, please contact Dr. Mandy Bratton, mbratton@ucsd.edu.


Print Article