Learning here, helping abroad

Chico teacher, students build solar suitcases and bring them to Africa

Erica Trejo and Connor Schademan with one of their new Kenyan friends

Erica Trejo and Connor Schademan with one of their new Kenyan friends

Photo courtesy of Milana Olson

Science and engineering teacher Milana Olson and two of her high school students—juniors Erica Trejo and Connor Schademan—arrived in Mwangaza, Kenya, in a refashioned military truck. To the townspeople, who greeted the trio with dancing, singing and clapping, the Americans weren’t simply tourists; they were bearers of light. In fact, “Mwangaza” means “light” in Swahili, a Kenyan youth leader told the group.

“That was touching, and it’s nice when you can turn and see the faces of your students and see the realization of what they have done,” Olson said during a recent interview.

The three were on a 10-day trip earlier this year to remote areas of Kenya to deliver solar suitcases to two towns, Mwangaza and Olorien. The trip was sponsored by PG&E, in partnership with the We Share Solar educational program and the international nonprofit Free the Children. Prior to the trip, Olson’s biotech and environmental sustainability class at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences received and constructed three solar suitcases, which are small photovoltaic systems that can provide enough power to light a small room. PG&E then sent Olson, Trejo and Schademan to Kenya to deliver them and teach the townspeople how to use and fix their new miniature power stations. Each village was given one suitcase to help start a small business—Olorien will have a new barbershop and Mwangaza will have a mobile cellphone charging station—and one was offered for general use.

Solar suitcases are simple, small generators of sustainable electrical power. Originally conceived for the medical environment—to be used in remote maternity wards in Africa and Asia—by We Care Solar, the nonprofit organization has made the technology available for use in nonmedical purposes via its We Share educational program. While supporting STEM education in the United States, the program helps the students provide solar power to remote schools, orphanages and youth centers in other nations. Since students are building them, Olson said, they are not meant for life-or-death situations.

Schademan praised the program for its educational aspects. “What we are doing is providing good sustainable solutions and we are teaching kids about STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” he said.

Schademan and Trejo were chosen by a panel of teachers, Olson said, out of 11 finalists.

“It’s all about who’s got the chops. The people who were selected went over and above and researched where they were going to go. It wasn’t, ‘I’m excited about what I’m going to see’; it was, ‘I’m excited about what I’m going to contribute,’” she said.

Last year, Inspire—a charter school located on the Chico High campus—was chosen, along with 18 other Northern California high schools, by PG&E to participate in the solar suitcase program.

Though he is still unsure of exactly what he wants to do after he graduates, Schademan said his experience in Africa inspired him.

“This trip has been transformative,” he said. “Whatever I do, I want to go out in the world and do [great things].”

While in Kenya, all the power for the crew was created by generators, and water had to be heated by burning wood, Olson said. The experience opened Schademan’s eyes to how people in the U.S. take their “privileges”—like electrical power and running water—for granted. Olson echoed his observation and said some of her favorite moments of the trip were spent just talking to each other. She specifically cited periods of downtime when the group created a makeshift bowling alley with a roll of tape as a ball and taught local kids how to play tag.

“We take for granted the ability to plug something in or to turn on a tap,” she said. “You’re not gonna bring a hairdryer or a curling iron—those all go by the wayside.”

Introducing the villages and their children to sustainable energy instead of fossil fuels was a major plus, Olson said. “It’s hopefully the way of the future. I think we realize as a society that we need to use more renewable energy,” she said.

The suitcase fixes a problem sustainably, Schademan said: “It is renewable energy and it’s a solution.”

Overall, the trip was an “authentic” lesson for all of Olson’s students—not just the pair who went to Kenya, but also those who helped create the suitcases.

“Any teacher is looking for lessons that are meaningful or impactful for their students, and when you go through the credential program or go online, you see a lot of authentic education and you try to strive for that—bringing an authentic lesson to my students that they can hold onto in their hearts and in their minds for years to come,” she said.