It takes a village: College staff, student group, high-school girls worked to bring water system, solar power to Guatemalan village


UWM’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) student organization was recently in Guatemala, installing water systems to serve three small, mountain villages with populations of 40-70 households. The group was accompanied by alumni mentors and Marissa Jablonski, lecturer in the College of Engineering & Applied Science.

Chris Beimborn, UWM STEM outreach specialist and EnQuest coordinator, joined the EWB group for one week, during which she successfully delivered and installed a We Share Solar Suitcase and transmitters that EnQuest campers built and customized for Guatemala’s off-grid environment. The solar team included Beimborn, Ally McMurray, undergraduate, civil & environmental engineering and EnQuest counselor, and Leah Stewart, undergraduate, civil engineering.

“The projects that EnQuest campers completed are now powering a community center in a mountaintop village,” Beimborn said. “The transmitters are enabling community members to monitor the solar-charged battery from a distance and coordinate shared use of the power supply.”

EnQuest campers’ projects have positive impact on people’s lives

EnQuest is a week-long, all-girl engineering summer camp for high school students—hosted by the College of Engineering & Applied Science—that encourages young women to consider careers in engineering and the sciences. During the camp, young women learn about opportunities in engineering, work with women engineers, visit engineering offices and labs, experience life on a college campus, form supportive friendships and carry out a real-world sustainable technology project.

At UWM, EnQuest and EWB have had special partnership, Beimborn says. “Each year, EWB travelers talk with people in the Ixil region of Guatemala and identify projects that EnQuest campers can do to practice engineering skills, meet a need and make the world a little smaller through the connection,” she says.

For the EnQuest campers, engineering becomes a more meaningful pursuit when they work on a project that has a direct, positive impact in people’s lives.

A community embraces the task

Settling on a location for the solar power station posed a last-minute challenge. “Residents of the Ixil region expressed that community members would be better able to share the solar power station in a community center than in a school,” Beimborn said. “However, Xobalpé does not yet have a community center.”

The group chose to try the community center in the village of Vicampanavitz.

In Vicampanavitz, the team met the mayor, the village supervisor and others who were all excited about the solar suitcase plans. “Thanks to the illustrated materials from We Share Solar and Leah’s excellent Spanish translation skills, the team learned the process and got to work,” Beimborn says. “We selected a south-facing spot on the roof for the solar panel. The villagers attached the panel to the roof, connected the cables and ran the cord under the roof’s ridge vent.”

Meanwhile, community members with baskets of food arrived and invited the team to join them in a lunch of rice with vegetables, black beans, hard boiled eggs and thick corn tortillas.

After lunch, Beimborn tightened bolts in the solar suitcase and checked that everything was working.

“I walked down the road to test one of the receivers we made with Dedicated Computing. It worked well!” she said.

A powerful connection

Next, the group mounted the case to the wall as Beimborn connected the solar panel, battery and light cables to the circuit while Stewart translated the explanations. “We secured the circuitry in the box and enclosed the large battery in a plastic box on the floor and tied the cover down with zip ties to protect curious kids,” Beimborn said. “When we flipped the power switch, everything worked!”

Creation Technologies, she said, sent supplies including lights with a wall switch. “I demonstrated the use of the receivers to monitor the battery from a distance. It was further tested by Mayor Jose, who lives uphill from the community building, and Supervisor Fran, who lives downhill.”

On the group’s last evening in Vicampanavitz, village officials came to say some words of thanks and the mayor explained that the teachers, who stay overnight at the school next door, previously used candlelight to grade and complete their lesson plans. Now they would be able to use lights the community building.

“Mayor Jose asked me to thank the EnQuest girls for their accomplishment and let them know that the people in the region would be happy to have more solar suitcases in the future,” Beimborn said.

Thanks to the EnQuest campers, Engineers Without Borders, Creation Technologies, Dedicated Computing, Eaton, and all the supporters who helped make this UWM-led project possible.