Physics department focuses on sustainability with summer projects

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The William Jewell College physics department is currently developing several sustainability projects that will be implemented here in Liberty, in other parts of the United States and in international communities.

A current sustainable housing project came out of their Physics and Sustainability class curriculum during the spring 2015 semester. Dr. Bunton and Dr. Baker, the course instructors, guided students as they mounted solar panels on the outside walls of houses, connected wiring so inside lights connected to the panels, and turned the panels on with normal light switches. Drs. Baker and Bunton provided the initial idea, but the students have designed the panels completely on their own. A second project is focused on a solar camp for a juvenile center in west Texas. This camp will allow exposure to scientific development for young people who are unlikely to experience it elsewhere.

Simone Stewart, junior physics and Spanish major with a mathematics minor, and Samantha Cobb, junior physics major, are two students who have been continually involved in the department’s focus on sustainability. Stewart and Cobb will use their Journey Grants to travel to St. Maarten, Guatemala with a group of six other students during the summer of 2015 to work with Xela Aid, a company that partners with groups to encourage self reliance in global communities. Additionally, they will work with local students in a science and engineering camp that teaches the students about solar energy and the work that goes along with it. This specific community is also interested in outdoor floodlights, so the department believes that the wiring techniques Stewart and Cobb have learned in the classroom will be helpful in that implementation.

Bunton’s goal for this project is to provide skills that will be useful in the long term for the young people involved in the camp.

“[The goal] is to both build enthusiasm for science and technology, and Xela Aid is actually hoping that we’ll be able to provide some education in solar energy that they can use to start micro-businesses,” Bunton said.

The current in-class sustainable housing project aims to guide Jewell students toward teaching others.

“It’s good to get the experience here at Jewell, in a safe environment, before we go out and implement it and teach it to someone else,” Stewart said.

These students and their professors have focused on St. Maarten’s specific needs while preparing for the trip. The department has found this to be the most effective way to design projects from past sustainability-focused trips to Haiti and the Bahamas.

“One of the things that we’ve learned is, instead of implementing what we want, we want to listen to them and get feedback from them about what they need,” Stewart said.

Bunton leads a book discussion with physics department students and other campus faculty that focuses on the avoidance of unhelpful, and sometimes even harmful, charity. The group reads books like economist William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” that encourage critical analysis of whether the aid being given is truly impactful.

“One thing we’re careful to do is, first, do no harm, make sure we’re working with people who know the culture and know the people. We’re not just trying to be white saviors and drop in some technology and leave,” Bunton said.

In fact, the group working on this project originally planned to implement a water purification system. However, they realized that they would not be able to do so in a way that was effective for the community and thus decided to change directions.

“We didn’t have a very good knowledge of [what was] in the water, so we didn’t know what kind of purifier to build,” Cobb said.

Another group of students, including Cobb, is going to a west Texas juvenile center to run a solar camp for students in the summer of 2015. One goal of this project is to inspire interest in the sciences for the young people in this community. For example, the group has designed solar-powered lanterns in mason jars.

“[Students are] more passionate about something when they can make something themselves and then take it home, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to do that,” Cobb said.

The kids in this center are generally from impoverished families and have become involved in drug smuggling to help alleviate financial troubles. Cobb said that the center is interested in bringing science-based activities to them because of this.

Bunton is working to bring an Engineers Without Borders chapter to the College. He hopes this organization would assure both interdisciplinary involvement in sustainability projects and a continued investment in global sustainability at Jewell.

Stewart and Cobb both plan to attend Washington University in St. Louis  upon graduation to pursue master’s degrees in chemical engineering. Stewart plans to maintain a global focus in her engineering, and Cobb hopes to use her education to promote sustainability in global communities.

Erin Melton

Erin Melton is a senior Literature and Theory major and French and Religious Studies minor. She is the chief copy editor and loves camels.

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