For the past seven years, the Montgomery College student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has been traveling to the community of Hato Rincón, located in the southern part of Western Panama, to support a building project for one of the most impoverished groups in Central America. The project includes building a library, a computer lab, and a community center in a remote mountain village, where the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people live.
“It’s a very agricultural town with fairly limited government services, and they’re not connected to power and have only a basic water supply,” said Hans Ingvoldstad, vice-president of the MC chapter. “Most of their income comes from seasonal coffee picking.”
“What makes a [financial] difference [for the Ngobe-Bugle people] is when their kids go off to Panama City and become temps or secretaries. Computer skills are very important,” Ingvolstad said. “The objective for us is to build a small, combined library and education center and provide a way for them to start working with computers before they actually get into Panama City.”
[EWB] will expose you to real-life engineering right off the bat. You’re learning what it’s like to be an engineer
Community members also plan to use the computers to document their indigenous language and culture, apply for government services, and access better health care information, including telemedicine, according to the project’s website.
Engineers working on the project selected solar energy as the best method to power up the laptops, and currently, the top design choice for power storage is “an array of boat batteries because this sort of application requires a deep-cycle battery [a battery designed to be regularly deeply discharged using most of its capacity],” Ingvoldstad said.
So far, the foundation is finished and progress on wall construction is underway. The plan is to install the roof next year. “By then we would be able to start installing the solar panels,” said Montgomery College Professor Craig Garrison-Mogren, the chapter’s faculty sponsor who has been involved since inception of the project.
“Testing for background radiation, quality of water… These considerations are important,” said Garrison-Mogren.
“[EWB] will expose you to real-life engineering right off the bat. You’re learning what it’s like to be an engineer,” said Garrison-Mogren. “We have learned a lot about international development and all the serious issues around that. Particularly, how engineering methods match what international development does.”
The EWB team is currently working on a detailed maintenance plan that the community can use to do its own maintenance. The MC Chapter is one of the student groups supporting the DC Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which took on the project seven years ago. At least one Montgomery College student has been on each trip to Panama since the project started.