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Students discover how solar power empowers

ASU trio study socioeconomic and health effects of introducing solar technology to rural communities in Belize

Barrett students who are working on a solar project with remote villages

February 17, 2019

Tucked away somewhere, in the annals of many a university’s research archives, are the theses of the students of yesteryear. Grand ideas, curious inquiries and profound realizations — true products of blood, sweat and tears — collecting dust.

Not so at ASU.

The honors thesis being developed by a group of interdisciplinary Barrett, The Honors College students, detailing the socioeconomic effects of the introduction of solar technology to rural communities in Belize, is already having real-world impact.

Later this month, Ivan Bascon, Olivia Gonzalez and Grant Laufer will present their initial findings at the Human Development Conference in Indiana, and they’ve also invited a representative from the organization that supplied the solar technology to sit in when they defend their thesis this spring.

It’s the difference between research for the sake of knowledge and research for the public good.

“Now there's a possibility of them actually implementing positive changes based on the research that we did as opposed to just letting it sit in the Barrett repository forever,” said Gonzalez, a global health senior.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The idea for their thesis came about after participating in The Global Intensive Experience, a unique study abroad program sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership designed to expose students to liberal democracy in different contexts around the world.

Currently, GIE offers programs in north India, Israel and the West Bank, with another in development in South Africa.

Bascon, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology senior; Laufer, an economics and business senior; and Gonzalez participated in the spring 2018 program in India, where they witnessed the work being done at Barefoot College, a volunteer organization founded in 1986 that trains poor, rural women — called Solar Mamas — from all over the world to become entrepreneurs and produce solar-energy technology to take back to their communities.

What they saw blew them away.

“It almost just seemed too amazing to be true,” Laufer said. “Just all these foreign people coming together, different languages, different backgrounds, and they're all learning to be solar engineers. You can't walk away from that without wanting to know more.”

As individuals who share an interest in international development, they were also impressed with the nonprofit’s focus on sustainable empowerment.

So the trio hatched a plan to travel to one of the rural communities in Belize where Solar Mamas had brought solar technology and see for themselves how it affected the community.

For 17 days over winter break, they observed and interviewed the residents of Santa Elena, where solar technology had recently been introduced, and Jalacte, another rural village that did not have electricity.

Despite a couple of hiccups at the beginning of the trip (trouble finding their contact upon arrival and a brief bout of illness), the students found they were able to ease into a good workflow, thanks in large part to the warmth and hospitality of the communities.

For the most part, they spent nights at a hostel in Punta Gorda, a fishing town on the Caribbean coast of southern Belize, and took a bus each day to the rural villages. But one night, the councilman of Santa Elena — whose wife is a Solar Mama — invited them to stay overnight at his home.

“We got to — in a brief little way — live a little Mayan life,” Bascon said. That night, they ate a traditional meal and slept in a hammock.

“Everyone was so accommodating and excited to talk to us,” Laufer added.

Susan Carrese, the group’s thesis director and GIE facilitator, said the program is not only a great way for students to learn what “leadership” and “service” mean in another culture, but a great way to stimulate future research.

“As part of our first GIE cohort in March 2018, Olivia, Grant and Ivan were forced to assess their own skill sets, seek help from others, reflect on failures and dig deep into who they are and who they want to be on the GIE,” she said. “When they came back to Barrett Honors College, they were primed for an ambitious project.” 

Since returning from Belize, the group has been analyzing mountains of notes and hours of interviews. It’ll be some time before they have anything conclusive to report, but they have been able to make some preliminary assessments of the data and have found both health and economic benefits to having solar energy.

Health-wise, solar technology eliminates the need for kerosene lamps and the harmful fumes that accompany them. Economically, the more efficient lighting allows women to stay up later making crafts and jewelry, a major source of income for the village.

While the group is eager to see the immediate impact of their research on the communities involved, they’re also cognizant of the lasting effects it will have on each of them personally.

“Having a nonprofit come in and just making the change themselves is the easy way, but the harder way is empowering others so they have the tools and the resources to make the changes they want to. That nuance is so important,” Bascon said. “As a future doctor, there's nothing more fulfilling than empowering others so they can live their full lives.”

The ASU Study Abroad Office offers 250-plus programs in more than 65 different countries. Learn more at the Study Abroad website.

Top photo: (From left) Grant Laufer, Olivia Gonzalez and Glenn "Ivan" Bascon (photographed Feb. 1 on the Tempe campus) traveled to Belize to conduct research on the effects of solar power panel use in rural communities. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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