Baylor Engineering Team to Bring Reliable Electricity to Honduras Town

March 22, 2007

For the past few months, Baylor University graduate student Ryan McGhee has spent nearly every free minute doing one thing: trying to build a device that will bring a basic necessity to someone in need.

"It's an act of worship for me," said McGhee, who is pursing his master's in engineering at Baylor. "I have been given a specific skill set for engineering work and while I'm not the type of person who can get up in front of a church group and play music, I can sit behind a desk and do calculations. Hopefully I can bring glory to God that way."

McGhee is part of a team of about 20 Baylor undergraduate engineering students with the group "Engineers with a Mission." They are designing and building a turbine that will help power a hydroelectric generator. The generator will be used to recharge individual batteries, which will be used for home lighting in 54 homes in Pueblo Nuevo, a remote village of 500 located in the north central part of Honduras.

Most of the residents are poor agricultural farmers and use homemade kerosene "candils" for home lighting. The candils are glass jars of kerosene with a cloth wick cut from old clothing. They are costly, give poor light and are a fire hazard.

"It's incredibly basic there. Most residents can only light their homes for short period of time," McGhee said. "It feels good that we can help them."

In August, McGhee and a few other students will travel with Brian Thomas, an engineering lecturer at Baylor who is the faculty adviser for Engineers with a Mission, to Pueblo Nuevo and will spend about a week building a weir, which is a spillway, and a water intake system that is required for the generator.

The trip will be the second time the group has traveled to Pueblo Nuevo. In December 2006, Thomas, McGhee and a small group of students spent a week determining the feasibility of installing the hydroelectric generator on a small river near the village. They determined the river could sustain such a system.

Thomas and his group are partnering with a network of churches in Honduras that are supported by Denver-based Mission to the Americas. A few hundred small churches have been established in this area of the country; some in urban areas and some in rural areas. Pueblo Nuevo has a small new church and a bi-vocational pastor. Baylor's group is coming in through the pastor's network.

"The network is very important because they lend us credibility," Thomas said. "It seems to the villagers that the church brought us in, and, it illustrates God's provision for them."

Thomas said the entire experience is transformative for the students, stretching them spiritually, mentally and physically. Aside from the grueling 12-hour work days it will take to construct the weir and water intake system, seeing the living conditions first-hand can take its toll. Each night, the group holds discussions about poverty, wealth and suffering.

"It's sometimes a shock to our students to see people dealing with suffering and being afforded no opportunities," Thomas said. "Each night, we ask the students questions like what are the spiritual moments of the day and how does this affect your relationship with God."

The Bigger Picture

Since 2002, hundreds of Baylor students and faculty members have traveled to countries around the world, such as Honduras, exploring what it looks like to serve God by using the skills and expertise from their major and field. These "discipline-specific" mission trips allow students to serve indigenous populations by offering basic health care (pre-med, pre-nursing students), literacy education (education students), technological infrastructure (engineering and computer science students) and religious education (pre-ministry students), among other efforts. As part of the trip, students reflect on their missions experience through designated readings, shared discussions and personal journaling.

"By helping students see how their specific abilities and interests may be of service to others and how Christians are called to loving responsiveness to those in need, the program aspires to help inform a long-term sensitivity to a Christian calling, whether in the context of professional or lay ministry," said Dr. Dub Oliver, vice president for student life at Baylor.

In 2005, two teams returned to Honduras, while more than 140 students, faculty and staff from engineering, music, medical, leadership and ministry took part in the first campus-wide trip to Kenya. Last summer, as teams returned to Kenya and Honduras, an exploration team from Baylor visited Armenia to establish future mission projects.

This spring and summer, Baylor will send four teams to Honduras (medical, deaf education, ministry and engineering), five teams to Kenya (music, education and seminary), and five teams to Armenia (outdoor recreation, engineering, business, environmental and general ministry).

A Growing Interest

The engineering Honduras trip is part of a much larger Baylor project to bring "appropriate technologies" to developing countries. The appropriate technology approach is based on helping people in other countries develop needed infrastructure, such as clean drinking water and reliable power sources. The approach also helps locals identify timely products utilizing their natural resources to produce for the world market.

Thomas credits Dr. Walter Bradley, Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor, for introducing him to the concept of appropriate technology. Since the concept took flight a few years ago, interest has been growing at Baylor. Thomas and his students have traveled to about six separate countries, constructing appropriate technologies that provide a better quality of life. In fact, interest at Baylor has increased so much that the School of Engineering and Computer Science started an appropriate technologies class.

Other Baylor schools also are getting involved. Thomas is partnering with the entrepreneurial program at Baylor's Hankamer School of Business to provide a business model for each appropriate technology. In the case of the Honduras trip, local residents will be charged a small fee by the owner of the generator, in this case the local pastor, to use the generator. Baylor business students are providing a business model so the system is financially self-sustaining.

"The system can't rely on monetary donations forever," Thomas said.

Not Without Need

While all of the Baylor students who travel on the trips pay their own way, there is still a cost to bring the supplies to these countries and construct the appropriate technology. Thomas estimates the upcoming Honduras trip will cost about $5,000, which he is in the process of raising.

"We are minimizing poverty, directly improving their way of life and building them spiritually. On the student side, we are giving them an intercultural experience and cultivating the view that life is a service," Thomas said. "We are doing so many things, we just have a small financial hurdle."

For more information, contact Frank Raczkiewicz at (254) 710-1964.