Driven by a desire to help people in isolated communities, a group of students and a professor travel south of the border for a project that puts their engineering skills to the test.
BY KATE KEALEY
Overgrown shrubs lashed the red pickup as it bobbed up and down along the serpentine dirt roads of Oaxaca, Mexico. In the back of the truck, Ted Nye and his former students, Vianey Mateo and Tae Kyun Kim, were tucked in with groceries and cans of gasoline.
The cramped ride was not part of Nye’s original plan, but the terrain required an off-road vehicle. They were relieved when the police officers they met in Santiago Jamiltepec just hours earlier offered to give them a lift on their supply run.
After the convoy reached the hilltop and came to a stop, Nye, Mateo and Kim hopped down from the truck to size up the location for their project at Escuela Primaria Bilingüe Niños Héroes in El Huamuche.
Though the school was named for the Boy Heroes of the Battle of Chapultepec, the buildings inside appeared in need of rescue. Barred windows were the only decorations on an otherwise plain classroom building painted in cream and faded mustard.
The trio had passed probably 25 schools on the 10 hour trip up from the state capital, and any one of them could benefit from a solar power system and computers.
“How did you find this place?” Nye asks Mateo.
“Well,” she responds, “you said to get the worst of the worst.”
Mateo spent months working through back channels with educators that serve poor, isolated indigenous communities of the region to identify the school of greatest need. And this was it.
Nye and his engineering students would construct a sustainable power system to connect this remote community to the modern age.
All equipment would need to be trucked in, as well as a generator to power the tools. Food and water would have to be delivered from outside so that the team doesn’t lose members to illness during the tight construction schedule. And the only available lodging is an abandoned police outpost.
But solar power and a classroom full of computers for the 109 children attending the elementary school would mean a big change in this agricultural community.
The proposition seems risky. But the trio has decided to go for it. After all, they’ve already seen the success of this project in a similar community.
Ted Nye retired after 29 years at Northrop Grumman, where he worked as the director of Space Technology, running a research group developing advanced technology for satellites.
As a member of the engineering faculty at Cal State LA, Nye makes it his mission to create opportunities for students to learn problem-solving skills and gain practical experience that will be essential in their careers. The university’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), a nonprofit network of students, faculty and professionals, is part of that mission.
From the beginning, the students in ESW wanted to apply the skills they learned in engineering classes in a place like El Huamuche.
“The vision was to install a big power system in a community that has few resources to help their people achieve higher education,” says Kim (’15), a graduate student in electrical engineering and former president of Cal State LA’s ESW.
With the vision of the project set, the team needed to select a location.
Tae Kyun Kim, Vianey Mateo, Cal State LA technology faculty member Maryam Azarbayjani, and Ted Nye visit National Polytechnic Institute, College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, Azcapotzalco.
In the summer of 2014, Nye, Kim and Mateo travelled south of the border to recruit partners and scout a location for the pilot project. They were pointed in the direction of a town high up in the mountains, but accessibility and language barriers were obstacles too big to manage for their first project.
Then Nye proposed another option: Mateo’s hometown of San Juan Teitipac.
Mateo told them many stories about where she came from throughout the school year. How she was raised in an adobe house with a dirt floor. How her family’s stove was fueled by corn cobs and pieces of wood.
“That was great back in the 1800s, but in today’s world, that’s amazing,” says Nye. “The feeling was that if we spent a little bit of energy down there, we could make a huge impact.”
SAN JUAN TEITIPAC
San Juan Teitipac lies in the Valles Centrales region of the state of Oaxaca.
It’s a very old town that predates Spanish colonization. Many of the 2,000 residents still speak the language of their Zapotec ancestors who ruled the region from nearby Monte Albán, which is now a well-known archaeological ruin and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.
Communication within the town happens face-to-face or blasts from loudspeakers hung haphazardly in the tree line. The day’s announcements are shouted with the urgency of a morning traffic report. Only the messages are about birthdays, upcoming rodeo contests or who in town has a bull for sale.
The cell signal is so weak that townspeople use their smartphones to take pictures instead of calls. Dialing a friend means a 15 minute walk outside of town on bumpy dirt roads.
Yet the people of San Juan Teitipac have a strong desire to connect with the outside world—and to make progress.
As a child, Mateo witnessed first-hand the self-sufficiency that drives a lot of the progress in the community.
“My family always talks about trying to do things for the betterment of the community. So I suppose that’s where I get it,” says Mateo, the fourth of six children.
Her dad was a stone grinder who made molcajetes used to mash and grind the grain harvested from nearby fields. Her mom ran a diner, serving up steak, rice, beans and salsa verde, Mateo’s favorite.
In 1999, her dad was elected vicepresidente, and had the privilege of representing the community in government matters. In this role, he would meet with regional leaders and petition the government for grant money to improve the infrastructure of the town.
Listening to her father and seeing the daily struggles of the people in her community inspired Mateo to become an engineer.
“We can ask for things, but the government doesn’t do a good job. So I thought maybe we can do it ourselves,” she says. “The schools are a good place to start because that’s where you can influence the children.”
THE SCHOOLS IN SAN JUAN TEITIPAC
When Nye, Mateo and Kim first visited the elementary school in the summer of 2014, the plan was to build a system to power LED lights for a classroom. But one look at the sun shining through the wide open windows at midday and it was clear that dark classrooms weren’t the biggest problem.
Maybe there’s something smarter we could do, Nye suggested as they continued on their tour of the campus.
The trio had entered the library when Nye spotted a relic from the past. Sitting on top of one of the wooden desks was a beat up manual typewriter. He asked Mateo about it.
The children practice typing on them, Mateo explained.
Nye thought for a second. “How about we think about putting in computers? That would be neat.”
The proposal was pretty bold. For starters, many of the elementary students hadn’t yet seen a computer.
“That’s the whole reason we probably want to do it,” Nye says. “It would break the mold. They go from three typewriters to Windows 10 with a wireless Ethernet network and state-of-the-art computers. It would blow their minds.”
San Juan Teitipac was ideal for the pilot project. Many of the people in town speak Spanish, making communication relatively easy. Although most of the townspeople have received little formal education, the parent-teacher association is active and very committed to providing a better education for the next generation. And because Mateo came from this town, and her sister Maria still lived there with her family, it was easier to establish trust with the townspeople.
“You can’t just walk into a place and say ‘I’m going to do this.’ You don’t know the people. They don’t know your intentions,” says Mateo. “I spoke to the officials of the town. I explained who we were, what we wanted to do and we convinced them we had good intentions. They accepted.”
Any concerns about the community’s commitment to the project quickly diminished once the Cal State LA team arrived in June 2015. The town was ready for Nye, Mateo, Kim and four other students—Alejandro Cordova, Moises Hernandez, Benny Garcia Sandoval and Ernesto Camacho.
“Before we got down there, they moved the bookcases and books from the library and had completely emptied it out, painted the room, washed and waxed the floors. I could tell this was sinking in pretty hard. They were going to protect those computers with their lives,” says Nye.
During the visit, the townspeople showed appreciation to the Cal State LA students and made them feel at home. Homemade lunches were often accompanied by entertainment from student dance groups, singers or children in traditional dress. The mayor invited officials from other towns and local dignitaries to show off the work being done. The town even held a parade with hundreds cheering from the sidewalks—an unexpected hero’s welcome.
“Although they have few resources, they were very generous with how they shared them. They opened their homes,” says Kim. “People walking by would find out what we were doing and immediately offer to help. Sometimes it would be as easy as cleaning up, or stripping wires or just making shade for us. Very simple, but they were happy to do it.”
School children observe Ernesto Camacho as he constructs a solar panel at Escuela Primaria Valentin Gomez Farias.
The team spent five days in town. They brought along a project plan, which had been reviewed by engineers in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Northrop Grumman. The plan focused on two schools.
At Escuela Primaria Valentin Gomez Farias, the town’s elementary school, the Cal State LA students installed a roof-mounted solar panel system, 13 desktop computers, three color inkjet printers and one wireless modem.
For Escuela Secundaria Técnica No. 99, the middle school, they stabilized an existing power source with a transformer that would protect the computer lab from power surges, installed 22 desktop computers, four printers and a wireless modem. Combined, the schools serve 550 children in the community.
The installation provided the team from Cal State LA with an opportunity to apply what they’d learned in the classroom. They also had to consider ways to make the systems less intimidating to the school employees and technician, since they would be responsible for its day-to-day operation.
“We anticipated some sort of fear, so we engineered a lot of protection, both automatic and passive, so they have full control,” says Kim.
Lower voltage batteries were selected to store the energy, reducing the chance of electrocution and making it easier to find replacements at the Wal-Mart in Oaxaca. High voltage equipment was secured in conduit and out of reach of small hands. Red, yellow and green status lights indicate how much power the system has left. The labels and data logs were so simple and clear that even the middle school students could understand them. And the team outfitted the rooftop mounts with a grid of cables to shield the panels from soccer balls bouncing up from the playground.
“In school, you get real good exposure to the analytical tools and theory and math, but you don’t get any exposure to the practicalities of running conduit, how to wire up electrical fixtures. So this was a good experience for them,” says Nye.
As the system hummed to life, it became the capstone of the Cal State LA students’ education, but the beginning of a new era of education for the students of San Juan Teitipac.
“When those computers got turned on for the first time, the screen savers mesmerized them. Seeing their text come up on the screen as they typed, that was thrilling enough for them.” — Ted Nye
The computers have enhanced classroom instruction, allowing teachers to present subject material in a way they were never able to before.
“It is so different to just read about the cycle of water and how it becomes rain than to see it on a screen with audio and other visuals,” says the elementary school principal, Fidel Vargas. “The visual impact is so much greater. The students are so excited they don’t want to move on to other parts of their daily schedule.”
The new computers boot up inside the media room.
A crucial element of the project’s success was Mateo’s role in serving as project organizer, says Nye.
“She’s come back, and she’s investing in their community. I couldn’t tell if it was inspiring the students, but I could tell it inspired the parents. You could see it in their faces,” says Nye.
After the group left Mexico that summer, Nye and Kim returned to Cal State LA, and Mateo went to Canada to begin work on her master’s degree in power systems at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
She’s been working remotely with the team ever since.
Vargas sends regular updates to Mateo. They share ideas on how to improve the school curriculum and find new teaching resources.
“We are very grateful for all her help,” Vargas says. “We don’t have any money to pay her and it seems her only satisfaction is seeing that the children have access to all this… the only way we have been able to have learning tools is thanks to this partnership with Miss Vianey and Cal State LA.”
Costumed schoolchildren perform traditional dances as a thank you during lunch for the Cal State LA team.
The hope is that as the students become more familiar with computers, they will ignite and feed a curiosity that shapes the students’ lives and inspires their community in a positive way.
The project and trip cost a little under $60,000 and was funded by Nye and his wife, Ann, who graduated from Cal State LA in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and also retired from Northrop Grumman.
“Ted and Vianey’s vision for how our engineering students could bring their classroom knowledge into the field, and into a community that impacts lives right here, right now is invaluable,” says Emily Allen, dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology. “Ted has brought this kind of energy to the entire senior design program for the college, which has benefited from his experience as a practitioner, as well as his compassion and astounding dedication to our students and their communities.”
In the year since the installation, the system has not failed once. In June 2016, Nye, Mateo and Kim reunited in San Juan Teitipac for a maintenance check of the system. It’s producing so much power that Nye purchased more computers for the schools.
Vargas says the first and second grade teachers have been scanning books and projecting them on screens to showcase images, videos and audio for an interactive experience. Meanwhile, the older elementary students are being introduced to software programs, including the Spanish-language version of Microsoft Office, and using the Internet to build virtual libraries.
WHERE TO NEXT?
After their success in San Juan Teitipac, the team started to think about its next major project.
“I told Vianey ‘pick out the worst of the worst school,’ ” says Nye. “We want the ones that are really off the grid. Neglected. That are just hopeless. That’s what we’re after.”
Most students in El Huamuche don’t make it past the ninth grade, because there’s no high school in town.
A new group of Cal State LA students is designing the system for El Huamuche this school year. The project will again involve installing the solar power system and computers at the elementary school. This time, ESW will forgo the printers and instead add a projector and screen. They will also provide the junior high school with 10 laptops.
In June 2017, the team will travel south of the border for the installation. The community has greater need and the project is more ambitious, but they’re ready for the challenge.
“This one here is probably going to be the hardest of the hard,” Nye says. “If we can do this one, we can probably take on anywhere that they need it.”
J. Emilio Flores assisted with translation for this report.
Illustrations: Nery Orellana.
All images courtesy of Cal State LA’s Engineers for a Sustainable World.