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Photo of Engineers Without Borders students in Puerto Rico
February 18, 2019

Empowering work: Students in Engineers Without Borders break ground in Puerto Rico

Written By: Sam Million-Weaver

Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico in September 2017, buffeting the island with 155 mph winds and completely destroying the territory’s power grid.

More than one year later, the power has mostly been restored in Puerto Rico, but the grid remains fragile, forcing many residents to rely on generators as a stopgap against rolling blackouts.

But thanks to the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders, one childcare facility in Puerto Rico won’t need to worry about keeping the lights on. The students are working with Hogar Albergue para Niños Jesús de Nazaret, a children’s shelter in the city of Mayagüez to install a photovoltaic solar array, with the aims of ensuring reliable power and reducing the building’s monthly electricity bill.

Currently, the facility spends roughly $1,000 per month on power, a hefty portion of its budget that could otherwise go toward providing shelter, food, transportation, education, social and psychological services to the 11 young children living under its roof—all of whom were victims of abuse before arriving at the home.

“These are kids that are really suffering,” says Allie Stephens, a sophomore majoring in civil and environmental engineering and one of the project’s leaders. “The shelter wants to put that money to better uses for the kids.”

Stephens, along with three other students and their advisor, James Tinjum, an associate professor of engineering professional development and civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, traveled to Puerto Rico in December 2018 for a weeklong information-gathering and assessment trip. Although they’d been working on the project from Madison throughout fall 2018, that visit was their first time setting foot on the island.

The group sometimes needed to overcome language barriers while they interacted with staff and children at the shelter—but that challenge was worth it, giving the group a deeper understanding of the community’s needs and helping forge connections with potential collaborators for the project.

The team also met with countless local contractors and engineers. Even before arriving on the Island, they had already booked 10 meetings during their short time in Mayagüez—and the students set up five additional consultations after their first day.

“We met with so many people who were eager to help us that we had the very positive challenge of figuring out how to use everyone who wanted to be involved,” says Stephens.

While in Mayaguez, the students also photographed almost every inch of the shelter and took detailed measurements to glean a comprehensive picture of the building’s energy needs—crucial information for their schematics.

They’ve also already procured more than 100 solar panels, three inverters, a converter kit, and several other components for the system, thanks to a generous $25,000 grant from the First Lady of Puerto Rico.

Once their final design is approved by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, they hope installation will begin in August 2019.

Until then, the students will have their hands full drafting plans, filing paperwork with regulatory agencies and signing contracts with workers on the island. It’s practically a full-time project management job for the students, who are also juggling their demanding engineering coursework.

But that time and effort is not without rewards, both in the satisfaction of seeing the project completed as well as valuable experience for engineers entering the job market.

“It’s amazing to work with communities and see the impact that the projects will have,” says Ethan Heroux, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and another manager on the project. “It’s the best experience an undergrad can have to prepare for the real world.”