In June we ran DIY solar workshops at a number of schools around Kumasi, across the Central and Eastern regions and in Accra. As well as running hands-on workshops for the students, we also got involved with local communities and other organisations that work in science education and renewable energy to see how solar panels could fit into both their education and daily life.
Here’s a blog post from UK volunteer Lucy about the experience:
15th June, 2014. The sun beat down on the courtyard of the Pink Hostel in Accra, reminding us that we were in the right place to be cutting tabbing wire, counting multimeters and handling solar cells like newborn babies. As those of us from the UK adjusted to the humidity, the heroic local volunteers negotiated good deals on taxis to the bus station. Once both kit and transport were sorted the three teams headed off to different schools, ready for some serious solar panel construction.
Each school had been carefully selected based on their level of interest in and potential benefit from the project, and many were return visits from previous Lightyear projects. Rosina led Nesh, Rachel and Huimin to Aseseeso where, alongside the skilled teaching of local volunteer Samuel, they succeeded in turning the rather daunting task of teaching a large class for an entire week into an energetic combination of hands-on physics, two 18V solar panels, an intense poster competition and some popular Chinese lessons.
The other two teams headed to Agona to meet with Mr. Abu, whom Lightyear have been working for a few years and who has connections with a number of schools in the area. My team of Svet, Lara, Gemma and Douglas set off further into the countryside to Bepoase where we were treated to the generous hospitality of Seth Boadi. We worked in Bepoase State College till about 2pm every day and the afternoons were spent exploring the village and meeting local workers, children and dignitaries. The clack-clack of looms weaving colourful kinte cloth, the bleats of ubiquitous goats and the sudden, violent thunderstorms peppered our days as we worked with the students, soldering whenever the Electricity Company of Ghana didn’t disrupt our work with one of their regular black outs.
After some initial shyness, the students were enthusiastic and creative. Locally-sourced soldering irons were redesigned by the blacksmith’s hammer to make them more user-friendly, the staff room quickly became full of electronics kit and classes were rearranged so lots of pupils could get involved. Our students were predominately girls, since many of the boys traditionally spend their days weaving the kinte cloth, the community’s main source of income. Might solar panel systems provide reliable lighting to help increase production of kinte cloth? Could the local manufacture of solar panels for use in more remote areas beyond the village become a viable business model? These matters and more were discussed daily with our students, local hosts and volunteers.
Meanwhile Laura’s team remained in Agona, staying with the music-loving Chaz in his welcoming home. Emily, Louise and Stephen, along with local volunteers Castro and Godfred, worked with the bright young students of the Agona Secondary High Technical School (ASHTEC), a place they quickly discovered also had the useful capacity to build smart and functional wooden frames for the solar panels.
After four days of intensive solar panel construction, the Agona and Bepoase teams gathered on the school bus to journey along dusty red, pot-holed roads to the remote primary schools Canaan and KKT, where the ASHTEC students expertly presented a 12V solar panel circuit to the local communities, neither of which were connected to the national grid.
It was a rewarding conclusion to a week of construction, discussion, brain-storming and relationship building. The ASHTEC students showed a good understanding of how solar panels work and ideas for how they could be put to good use were sparked in both schools. We left Seth and the Bepoase students with the equipment to build a 5V solar panel of their own and look forward to seeing the result.
By the time we decamped to the beautiful lake Bosumtwi for a team debrief and some hammock time, we had learnt a few things the hard way, as well as been inspired by the dedication and tenacity of the schools we had worked in. It was agreed that modular solar panels were the most effective system to centre the workshops around. An individual 5V panel is quick and easy to build, students can be divided into smaller teams to build one each simultaneously and when connected they work well as a 12V system. Plus, they are easier to test for any faults.
We’d also learnt some essential Twi and the invaluable worth of local volunteers. Their knowledge of the Ghanaian educational system, their understanding of our objectives, as well as their wisdom and good humour, helped significantly in making the workshops run as effectively as possible. So it was the least we could do to give them a few impromptu swimming lessons in the lake.
The second week saw us head to three very different places. Rosina’s team went to the small local school of Abuakwa Neumann in the outskirts of Kumasi. Laura and some of our smartest PhD scientists headed to Cape Coast to work with the pan-African brains of AIMS, where they designed a solar tree and invented a rechargeable LED light. As well as being knowledgeable and inquisitive, the AIMS students were also keen to take the concept of DIY solar panels back to their own countries, which is an exciting prospect.
I joined Svet, Rachel, Emily and Kafui to teach at the Airport Police Academy School in Accra. There we worked with the talented and inspirational teacher Emmanuel Frimpong. A keen advocate for solar energy, he gathered a handful of select JHS 3 students for us to work with. From award-winning science students to football heroes, the students had good theoretical knowledge of electronics so it was satisfying to be able to facilitate them putting this into practice. This time we adapted the modular solar panels to have plywood backs instead of glass. This made them cheaper, safer and easier to build.
We were also joined by a team of four students and their leader, the dynamic Onaim, from Woelab in Togo. We knew they had built their own 3D printer out of scrap parts, and spoke mainly French, so they added a whole new dimension of skills, questions and understanding of the potential of DIY ‘panel solaire’. And the rest of us were all pretty much blown away when they presented Jerry, their homemade fully-functioning computer. Never has using a computer felt so unique.
Together the Togolese and Police Academy students built some very smart and efficient solar panels. We planned how they would present them to younger classes and other schools as both a skill-sharing and fundraising exercise. We also checked up on last year’s 18V solar panel, which still generated good power, despite not being protected by a pane of glass. This year’s modular solar panel was built to last longer and be much more flexible it it’s usage. On the final day it was put to the test by a very proud team.
As well as being immensely fun and satisfying to run, the solar panel workshops proved they are an ideal way to educate young students about hands -on science and help them understand how electricity actually works. Once built, they can be used to charge mobile phones or laptops, to provide light and TV during the relenting black outs (especially important during the World Cup). The process could also be turned into a business, with panels either sold on, or have their charge ‘rented out’ in local markets for mobile phones. As the discussions with the students and teachers proved, the possibilities are manifold.
On a personal level, being part of this year’s Lightyear Foundation project was both tough and delightful. Resources weren’t always straightforward and facilities often limited. But the satisfaction of sitting back and listening to your students teach their headmaster how a solar panel works – from the calculation of voltage to the dynamics of an inverter – was unbeatable. Lightyear Foundation succeeds in running both a tight ship and a flexible venture, allowing for ideas to grow and solar facilities to develop in their natural environment; which in this case was the beautiful, music-filled, energetic Ghana.