Light After Dark

  • September 1, 2016

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Today I am back in Nigeria — this time in Kano, a city of 10 million people and a maternal mortality rate that robs the lives of 1,250 women for every 100,000 live births.

One community health officer described a breech delivery at night, and the danger of using candles. She was unable to see adequately under the dim luminance of a kerosene lantern and called to the patient’s husband to ask him to hold a candle for better illumination. This barely improved the lighting in the room and at two times the patient screamed out when hot wax dripped onto her skin … 

... in another clinic, a midwife told me about a breech delivery in the darkness. The baby’s body delivered first, and the head was trapped. She searched for a light, but the only flashlight in the facility was broken. The midwife grabbed a cell phone to utilize its small light, but the phone fell in a pool of blood on the delivery table, and no longer could function. By the time the delivery could be completed, the baby was stillborn.”

From “Stories from the Night” by Laura Stachel, M.D., MPH

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“It might take a little elbow grease,” Environmental Studies Professor Karina Garbesi calls out from the head of the classroom. It’s mid-August and she’s standing in front of a bright blue box surrounded by a riot of wires, ports and circuits that must each find its connection. Eventually, they will make up the guts of a USB port, electrical outlet, charging station and switchbox, concealed by a white panel on top. Once paired with a solar panel, the contents of the box (a suitcase actually) are designed to provide light and power in schools and orphanages a half a world away.

“Don’t break it, but, you know, you’re going to have to kind of muscle it in there,” Garbesi says of an unruly cable. It’s a much different sort of lesson than what the students — high school and middle school teachers from Hayward Unified School District — are used to. Thanks to seed money from Pacific Gas & Electric, instead of textbooks and experiments that illustrate theoretical concepts, today they are using old-fashioned trial and error to give a life-changing technology to people 10,000 miles away. 

According to the International Energy Agency, more than 1.3 billion people don’t have access to electricity worldwide, 95 percent of which are concentrated in developing countries. In Africa alone, a 2014 World Energy Outlook report projects

600 million people live in the dark — almost twice the total population of the United States. “This is not a partial credit kind of thing,” Garbesi adds. “Either it works or it doesn’t work.”

Which is exactly why the teachers are attending the two-day, 16-hour workshop — they believe it will work. As part of the handful of schools that make up the Hayward Promise Neighborhood (HPN) program, a federally funded, five-year initiative to lift developmental and educational outcomes in the area, a top priority is curriculum that grabs students’ attention in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). “Usually in the lab we’re measuring the velocity or forces of something, and then when it’s over the pieces go back in the box, back in the cupboard,” says Ian Fry, a physics and chemistry teacher at Tennyson High School. “We’ve never done anything like this before — create a thing that will be used by someone else for years to come.”

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“It’s the first time many of them, adults or children, have even seen a light bulb. Their lives are governed by the sun and the moon,” Marsha Campbell explains. She is a member of the Global Orphan Project (GO), a faith-based organization that has dozens of ongoing projects in 18 different countries. She is currently preparing for her next trip to Uganda to continue work on a new village and orphanage in Ajulu Parish, the site of one of the largest former Internal Displaced People (IDP) camps in Central Africa.

On her packing list is a conspicuously blue suitcase — the kind that would be impossible to miss (and too brightly colored to easily steal) on an airport luggage conveyor belt. Made of high-density polyethylene, the suitcase is built to shoulder bumps and spills on trains and jeeps, or float if it topples into a river from a barge or canoe. Inside is a portable solar light system with enough power to illuminate a multi-room school, orphanage, community center, or dormitory — up to 200 watts and 200 amp-hours of battery energy storage. Campbell estimates she has delivered more than 30 suitcases. “How do you explain it?” she muses. “The first time the lights go on … the joy is childlike. Even the adults — just to see each other.”

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Associate Professor and Department of Physics Chair Erik Helgren is working alongside Garbesi with the HPN teachers. The pair spearheaded a new hybrid course this fall for CSUEB students to also take part in building the Solar Suitcases. Part environmental studies (Garbesi’s area of scholarship) and part physics (Helgren’s specialty), the class explores issues of social justice and energy poverty in the context of renewable power resources — which countries have what and for how much, and what students here can do to build sustainable solutions.

According to Garbesi, the transformation works both ways, for those who receive as well as those who give.

“There are data to show that students, and particularly female students, are much more interested in STEM fields when it has a human purpose — to help other people,” she says.

Sparking that interest is imperative to diversifying the STEM workforce of the future. According to a 2015 report by the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, Hispanics make up 30 percent of the local population (and 40 percent of CSUEB students) but occupy just 3 percent of high-tech jobs in the region. “The majority of my students are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners,” agrees Jenny Blaha Dawson, a 7th and 8th grade science teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Hayward. “Approaching lessons (through ESL) sometimes puts other things on the back burner. (The Solar Suitcase) gives them this view into what life is really about. I want the kids to see, if you’re interested in the world around you, you’re a scientist.”

“No one else is doing what we’re doing on this multilevel scale that encompasses the entire pipeline,” Garbesi adds, speaking about what differentiates CSUEB from other campuses that are building the Solar Suitcases (see The Backstory). The new hybrid course includes mentoring the HPN kids in their schools and also bringing them to campus. “One of the things we wanted to do in this class is have our students teach (younger) students, and work with the middle schools and high schools to teach what they’re learning here at Cal State East Bay,” Helgren explains. “It bridges the gap.”

For Sahil Rahimi, a third-year physics student, the chance to teach and the environmental/ social justice components are what drew him to the project. “We have to do something to help the planet,” Rahimi emphasizes. “And we’re doing it here by helpingpeople who lack a necessity of life, electricity. I’m going to continue taking this kind of class if I can.”

On the opposite end, environmental studies student Teresa Gamber says she was ready for something hands-on. “I’m a little nervous about being among all these physics students and engineers,” Gamber shares. “But most of the stuff we do (in environmental studies) is reading, so I’m excited to do something applied.”

By the end of the quarter, the CSUEB students will complete six suitcases intended for continued teaching. The HPN classes will build five suitcases each, totaling 25 systems destined for the developing world this year. For Helgren and Garbesi, it’s a dream come true. “This is all I ever wanted to do with my life, with my professional career,” Garbesi says. “To have this kind of opportunity come together, to be able to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, to really make the world a better place — what could possibly be better than that?” 


We Care Solar, a nonprofit devoted to creating reliable electricity in low resource areas, is the brainchild of Berkeley obstetrician Laura Stachel and renewable energy scholar Hal Aronson. Stachel traveled to West Africa in 2008 to study maternal healthcare and high mother-infant mortality rates. What she found shocked her. Although there were issues with equipment and facilities in regard to birth-related deaths, the most urgent issue was something else entirely — light.

Stachel returned home where her husband, Aronson, produced a portable solar light system inside a suitcase to demonstrate how the technology could help the Nigerian hospital. When Stachel brought it to them, the staff begged her to leave the suitcase behind for immediate use; it was too valuable, even as a sample, to go to waste. Word-of-mouth soon led to requests for more, and the nonprofit Women’s Emergency Communication And Reliable Electricity was born. The grassroots movement has since placed approximately 1,500 suitcases, which are now manufactured in Fremont, California, in 27 countries.

In 2012, Aronson teamed up with business executive Gigi Goldman to create We Share Solar, a new branch of the nonprofit that enables students to produce the suitcases. These Solar Suitcases are placed in schools, orphanages, and community centers, while the factory-built Solar Suitcases go to health centers. To date, more than 50 educational institutions have taken part in the We Share Solar program, amounting to 150 suitcases in six countries over the past four years.