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Solar Power, Student Power

UH students converted a shipping container into a solar-powered mobile computer lab

By Jeannie Kever


The official mission? Demonstrate your skills in computer engineering technology and industrial design.

The real payoff? Make a difference in the world.

Students from the computer engineering technology and industrial design programs have built and equipped a mobile computer lab fashioned from a shipping container and powered by solar panels.

After it is displayed on the University of Houston campus this summer, the project is destined for Mali, a landlocked country in western Africa.

Students can propose their own senior projects, but the UH College of Technology also invites community members to pitch ideas. Last fall, Dr. Richard Jackson brought his dream.

Jackson, an internal medicine specialist from Houston, first learned about Mali from a patient, Garba Konate, who had come to Houston to attend UH; later, Jackson and Konate created the Mali Nieta Foundation to improve health and educational opportunities there.

Mobile Lab

Konate has returned to Mali, a country of 17 million people, and serves as the contact there. Jackson has sent medical supplies, and a clinic in the capital is named after him. But he had a bigger idea: Aware of Mali’s young and fast-growing population and low literacy rates, he wanted to send a computer learning lab that could be used by both children and adults, easily transported around the country and not dependent on an electric grid that doesn’t reach everywhere.

The foundation raised money for the project, which Mesquanint Moges, instructional associate professor of engineering technology, estimated will cost about $25,000.

“Immediately, I knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Isaac Garay, who led the five-member team of computer engineering technology students charged with painting the container, setting up the solar panels and installing the computer network. “I liked that it was an idea that could actually make a difference in the world.”

The exterior solar panels can be detached and packed inside the container for easier shipping. And Moges said the project can be replicated and used around the world.

Garay has relied on scholarships and loans to pay his way through college, giving him empathy for the students in Mali. “I get what it’s like not having enough money to pay for the supplies you need.”

He and other team members – Chris Abad, Jorge Osorio, Stillwell Pan and Justin Sanchez – did the heavy work inside a cavernous west Houston warehouse, sharing space with Active Water Solutions, which manufactures self-contained wastewater treatment systems. Jackson knew the company’s landlord, who asked shop manager Chris Cleverly if the company would offer space and advice for the project. Cleverly agreed.

A team of graduate students from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design took on the interior – designing and overseeing fabrication of custom-built chairs, a table and desks, planning lighting, cooling and other “human factors,” all while creating a layout to allow nine people to fit into a 19 by 7 foot space.

Amy Conley, a member of the team, said she and colleagues Ashley Lincoln and Mark Williams were guided by several principles: saving space, multipurpose use, adjustable, durable, easy-to-maintain and cost-effective.

EunSook Kwon, professor of industrial design, said the challenges included the limited space, and determining the best materials and tools for the students. The furniture was designed to optimize space: the chair backrests can be removed and used as a lap desk, with the seat serving as a stool or small table.

Individual desks along one wall serve both as writing surfaces and secure storage for the laptops. The facing wall holds a large blackboard and smaller blackboard tablets for hands-on learning. Collapsible tables allow group work inside and outdoors.

Jackson pronounced himself pleased. “This is just great,” he said after a presentation on the furniture design.

And Moges said his students have learned not just technical skills but also the “soft skills” needed on the job – problem solving, team work, leadership.

They have learned something else, too, he said: “The students are helping somebody, not only learning the technology but contributing.”

A native of east Africa, Moges knows first-hand that the mobile classroom will be valuable. “I wish I had had those resources.”

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