Engineering Students Receive Hands-On Learning in Belize

April 15, 2015

ALLIANCE, Ohio – Improving quality of life and refining engineering skills, Mount Union engineering students implemented a sustainable energy infrastructure project on their spring break trip to Belize in March.

As part of their mandatory international experience, a group of junior civil and mechanical engineering students traveled to Belize during their spring break to complete an ongoing three-year project with their Belizean collaborator, Edward P. Yorke High School.   

The project began as an ecological park project in Spring 2013 to control storm water and has since evolved to an off-the grid aquaponics system powered by solar and wind-turbine.

The current engineering juniors were given the project at the beginning of the semester and worked tirelessly until their spring break trip. The class was divided into two travel groups, with the first travel group going down during spring break and the second group to travel in May. The second travel group’s job is to complete this three-year project.   

“Our students’ work is going toward a greater purpose,” said Dr. Helen Muga, assistant professor of civil engineering. “We are meeting a need there.”

“Overall, Belize is a friendly, English-speaking country,” Muga said. “It is easy to work there; however, it is has solid waste, water and pollution issues just like any other developing country.”

This year’s project involved the design and construction of an aquaponics system powered by solar and wind energy – an off-the-grid energy system. The aquaponics system is to be used by Edward P. High School to grow and harvest fish.

“The aquaponics system we designed pumped water from a nearby pond into two separate tanks,” said senior Nathan Lorah, a mechanical engineering major of East Liverpool, Ohio. “These tanks would house fish that locals may be able to eat. The quality of the water must be tested before the fish can be eaten on the school grounds or sold as a profit. The pumps will be powered by four solar panels and one windmill. The power output from the solar panels was considerably greater than the windmill, but the windmill was a favorite with the locals.”

From mathematical equations to fieldwork experience, the skills learned in class were applied to the students’ designs during the semester as well as on site in Belize. In addition to Muga, the engineering students also had to rely on the expertise of professors from engineering and other departments as well as practitioners from industry for assistance. Students received assistance from Dr. Brandon Mitchell from the Mount Union Department of Physics, Dr. Yan Liu from the Department of Engineering and Greg Courtney of Wind Turbines of Ohio, LLC. Mark Velasquez of Belize provided invaluable field experience to the students while on site in Belize. 

“One of the main things I took away from this trip was the difference between students’ learning in the classroom and on the field,” Muga said. “You don’t see the students’ full potential until they get on site.”

One of the challenges of engineering in a developing country is that things can change and designs have to be altered while on site. That is exactly what happened to the March travel group. On their first night on the ground, they had to spend most of their night modifying and to an extent completely changing some of their designs. This was on top of 18 hours of traveling.

“The biggest thing we took away from the experience was problem solving,” said senior Jesse Cassidy, a mechanical engineering major of Painesville, Ohio. “There were many unexpected problems that came up once we landed, and we had to work together as a team to solve them. We had to draw from our experience in several different areas of engineering, such as electronics and structures, and apply this knowledge to overcome the problems and make sure the project got finished on time.”

Students also gained the useful experience of working abroad in the setting of a different culture and country.

“Living in one place your entire life can put you in a bubble,” Cassidy said. “Going abroad for this trip opened up my eyes to how the world works outside of the U.S. It's an invaluable experience not only to build your resume, but for life.”

“I enjoyed working with our students and the high school in Belize,” Muga said. “But seeing the project come to life is just priceless.”

Belize 2015

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