Powering Pomolong

Honors students supply a South African community with electricity.

Though it’s home to roughly 70,000 people, you won’t find Pomolong Township, South Africa, marked prominently on many maps. Set against the backdrop of majestic mesas and dusty plains, the township — a mishmash of multicolored, corrugated metal shacks — is a remnant of the country’s apartheid era.

“In America, when we use the word ‘township,’ I think it is a fairly benign image we have of a close-knit village of friendly people,” says Alvin Wang, dean of The Burnett Honors College at UCF. “A township in Africa is a very different concept. It’s a place where people don’t want to live, and they are there because they are black.”

Off the Grid

Last May, Wang, Associate Dean Martin Dupuis, Burnett Honors Information Technology Director Michael Callahan, ’05, and a group of Burnett Honors students traveled to Pomolong to work with town residents. There they installed a 40-foot-tall wind turbine and sun-tracking solar panels to power the township’s new community center and provide Internet access to the nearby Swinburne Primary School. “[Pomolong] is off the grid,” Wang says. “The only running water is in spigots located about every 50 meters. So houses don’t have any water, and you have to use public latrines.”

The genesis for the project occurred two years ago, when Annamarie Versfeld, mother of Burnett Honors student Zina Versfeld, approached Dean Wang about working in South Africa. Wang says that Annamarie, who owns a large farmstead in South Africa, was familiar with The Burnett Honors College service-learning, study-abroad program on the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. That project, which involved students and faculty in a range of sustainability projects, was one that she hoped the college might replicate in Africa. Annamarie volunteered her farmstead as a home away from home for the college’s first project in Africa.

In 2011, Wang and Dupuis took a fact-finding trip to determine how they could help the town. “We don’t go to people and tell them what they need,” Wang says. “When our students are working toward a common goal with our international friends, that’s when true understanding of other cultures takes place.

“[The township residents] said they would love to have electricity in their community center. Without electricity, there is nothing to do after the sun sets.”

People Get Ready

On an average day, the lobby of The Burnett Honors College resembles a museum, complete with stylish marble floors, glass-encased sculptures, and modern art adorning the hallways. Before heading out for the 17-hour trip to Pomolong, Burnett Honors students turned the lobby into a hardware supply store, says Kelly Cox, ’13.
Cox, now studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University, recalls bringing an empty suitcase to the lobby, where the floor was strewn with equipment for the wind turbine team. She filled her empty carry-on with as much as she could fit. Work on building the prototypes for the renewable energy plant involved 16 Burnett Honors engineering students, who helped devise the wind turbine and solar panel system as part of their senior design project. Seven student representatives from the four engineering teams made the trip to South Africa to install the renewable energy system. Three more students from biomedical sciences, anthropology and international studies also joined the trip.

Callahan helped the Swinburne Primary School gain Internet access. He updated their computers, linked them to a server, and loaded new software, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Previously, the 10 government-supplied computers had never been turned on. “It turns out there was one cable missing,” Callahan says. Burnett Honors faculty and staff also trained Swinburne teachers how to use the computers.

At the Pomolong Township community center, Callahan and the students installed a video projector that the college donated. The college also donated a library of DVDs to the township, says Wang.

“The IT was a small piece of what I did,” says Callahan, who earned his M.B.A. and undergraduate degree in computer science from UCF. “Originally, I thought that was going to be the primary piece, but about a month before we left for South Africa, I started to get more involved with the engineering senior design teams.”

SLIDESHOW: Pomolong

“The wind turbine was part of a kit that implied that three people could put it together — we had almost 20 people trying to build it, and we had our challenges.”

Putting the Pieces Together

Callahan says he began questioning the teams about key components among the renewable energy systems. “Three of the teams were building a 24-volt system, and one team changed theirs to an 18-volt system for technical requirements,” he notes. “[The systems] were not compatible.” The teams began addressing other emerging problems, such as planning for lightning protection.

“The hardest part was trying to figure out where your team fit in the project,” says Robert Bantz, ’13, who worked to design and install the solar panels. “It was interesting learning about collaboration.” To add to the challenge, says Bantz, the team was designing for a site they had never visited.

Michael Jones, ’13, project manager for the wind turbine team, says, “A lot of things ended up being more expensive than we expected.” Jones, now pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University at Buffalo, says despite having to scale back, the team ended up with a successful project.

“We had planned on a 150-pound turbine mount at the top, and we ended up with a 15-pound one,” he says. “But we were able to get it all up in two weeks, which made us proud.”

Bantz was impressed with the collaboration between The Burnett Honors College and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “That was something that stuck with me,” he says. “The College of Engineering and Computer Science donated at least $3,000 worth of materials.”

“The students did an amazing job working with me and helping identify what the bigger issues were, coming up with a plan, and getting everything packed before we left the country,” Callahan says.

“We will be back.”

Once on site in Pomolong with construction underway, Callahan says there were more surprises: “The wind turbine was part of a kit that implied that three people could put it together — we had almost 20 people trying to build it, and we had our challenges. But that was an obstacle the students overcame with help from local volunteers, and the turbine is now one of the tallest structures in the village.”

With the construction of the community center and its renewable energy system, town residents and UCF faculty and students celebrated with a viewing of “The Lion King.” But the highlight of the festivities for Burnett Honors students Michael Jones and Kelly Cox was the impromptu dance party that happened in the community center.
“After the movie ended, Andrea Solano, ’13, the electrical engineering student representative, pulled out her iPod to play some music,” recalls Cox. “The children rushed in and said excitedly, ‘Play Justin Bieber!’ … They all knew every single word. It was really funny — we were having a dance party with all these little children singing Justin Bieber in the middle of South Africa.”

Dupuis maintains contact with the town’s liaison, local religious leader Rev. Efraim Mbele, primarily through text messages. In a message, Mbele wrote, “The community is very happy to see such marvelous things in the area, because at night they come to the center to do homework. The teachers use the radio for the children, and they are happy to see their school developing.”

Wang says The Burnett Honors College has plans to return for other projects. “At the very least, we can expand the power that is generated off the community center,” he says. “We will be back.”

Cheetahs, Kudu Lunch and Spiders as Big as A Hand

During their trip to South Africa, Burnett Honors students spent a week working as honorary rangers at the Nambiti Game Reserve to care for baby cheetahs and other wild cats.

“Cheetahs will be extinct in less than 20 years, and the only way we can perhaps prevent their extinction is with conservation efforts‚” says Dean Alvin Wwang. “One way that is being accomplished is to raise cheetahs in captivity so that they are protected from predators‚ such as lions and hyenas.”

Wang adds that the college adopted a male cheetah cub at the reserve‚ providing funds to support the wild cat‚ now appropriately named Knightro.

To remain docile‚ cheetahs need daily socialization‚ Wang explains. “They are like giant house cats‚” he says. “Instead of a little kitten with a ball of yarn‚ cheetahs will play with automobile tires.”

Student Kelly Cox recalls riding with a ranger to track down a hyena that had entered the cheetah enclosure.

“While we were looking for it, we found a kudu [a species of antelope] that the hyena had killed‚” she says. “We pulled it out of the water and fed it to the cheetahs that day. Nothing goes to waste.”

Cheetahs‚ hyenas and half-eaten kudu weren’t the only close encounters students had with African wildlife.

Student Michael Jones remembers spiders as big as a hand. A ranger found a spider in one of the students’ rooms. Cox recalls‚ “I asked him to kill it‚ and instead he put the spider in a cup and released it outside‚ which was probably the right thing to do.”