CWRU students install solar panels in Namibia, thanks to a Weatherhead professor’s MOOC

When Michael Goldberg started his Massive Open Online Course two years ago, he hoped it would empower students around the globe to launch their own businesses.

He never imagined that Case Western Reserve undergraduates would travel to another continent to help them.

But that’s precisely what happened when a conversation between Goldberg and engineering professor Daniel Lacks connected students in Cleveland with an aspiring entrepreneur in a Namibian village.

A Namibian women turns on a light in her home after solar panels were installed
A member of Maria’s community turns on a new light in her home.

Thanks to the collaboration between faculty from management and engineering, three students had the opportunity to learn firsthand about a faraway country and its culture. Residents of the Iikokola village, meanwhile, have electricity in their homes—for the very first time.

The story actually begins with the Hudson, Ohio-based Burton D. Morgan Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing entrepreneurship in Northeast Ohio. The foundation has long supported Case Western Reserve initiatives in this realm, including support for the university’s chapter of LaunchNet and the think[ box ] innovation hub. In 2014 Burton D. Morgan provided support for an online course Goldberg hoped to offer, “Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies.”

Maria Newaya, a sustainable agriculturist in Iikokola, enrolled in the course to learn more about how to create a business that would connect livestock farmers in her village with game lodges in Namibia. Beyond challenges of geography and terrain, the farmers faced a technological hurdle: They needed to be able to charge cell phones so they could call potential customers or contact them through the Internet.

Last year Goldberg himself traveled to Namibia through the support of a Fulbright Fellowship. While there, he led a social entrepreneurship “boot camp,” that Newaya attended. When Lacks approached him this fall about potential international projects for his students, Goldberg immediately thought of her.

Lacks, the C. Benson Branch Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been leading student trips abroad for six years, typically to developing regions. Trips to places like Senegal, Malawi and Uganda has given students the opportunity to apply classroom lessons in settings that lack equipment and services that are common here. As a result, students learn to improvise, and also get to see the immediate impact of their efforts.

Students who travelled to Namibia to install solar panels
Harris, Hively and VandenBussche pose with members of Maria’s community.

For this year’s January trip, Lacks took engineering students Elisah VandenBussche and Matthew Hively and Weatherhead student Evan Harris to Newaya’s village. They were tasked with installing solar panels on huts, and then connecting the panels to simple devices, like lightbulbs.

Prior to the project, villagers illuminated their homes with candles or kerosene—expensive, and potentially dangerous, options. The group placed the five panels in the homes of elderly residents and their families.

“They’re 70- to 80-year-old women who lived their whole lives without electricity,” Lacks said. “They were really amazed.”

Throughout the semester, Lacks and Goldberg have led students working on additional projects that have emerged from the trip’s lessons.

VandenBussche and Hively, for example, have worked on their senior capstone project: off-the-shelf solar panel kits that can be installed by an average consumer in less than a half hour.

“The trip was a great example for me of the power of electricity to provide opportunity and safety,” VandenBussche said, “and more importantly, of the importance of interdisciplinary and international cooperation when it comes to innovation.”

VandenBussche holds a solar panel to be installed
VandenBussche holds a solar panel to be installed.

In May, Lacks and Mohan Sankaran, associate professor of chemical engineering,will take a new group of students to Botswana to install solar panels VandenBussche and Hively make. As part of their efforts, the students will make calculations to determine how large each panel must be based.

Meanwhile, two teams of students in Goldberg’s “Design Thinking in Management” course are developing plans for a distribution system for Newaya’s business. Students will present their ideas to Newaya on April 19, and she will decide the best path to take.

“The opportunity to connect Professor Lacks and the students and Maria’s community was just sort of this perfect circle of the kind of help that we’re aspiring to do to continue to make an impact well beyond the walls of the university,” Goldberg said.