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Power of play: Y. project helps Ghanian kids spin electricity

Wed Feb 18 00:00:00 MST 2009

Ghana Children © Mark Philbrick, BYU Photo

"It sounds like some sort of weird reality television challenge: Design playground equipment out of secondhand car parts. Make it produce electricity when a child hops aboard. Build it using Third World engineering techniques. And assemble it all in four days.

But you won't see it on TV. The only people who were watching in April, as five Brigham Young University engineering students built and installed a power-generating merry-go-round in rural Ghana, were wide-eyed villagers who have never owned a television."

"There's no electrical grid in these country villages. They have no options for getting power," said Ben Markham, whose company, Empower Playgrounds Inc., sponsored the BYU project. "I wanted to put power in the hands of the kids, give them the power to improve the quality of life where they live."

The children in Essam village, which is located a bumpy three hours from the country's capital, literally have electricity in their hands. When they take a spin on the merry-go-round, they're powering a windmill generator. Gears multiply the rotation, so children can produce a lot of power with just a little push.

"It's not work to them," Markham said. "They're just having fun."

At first, the children, most of whom don't even own toys, didn't understand what to do with the merry-go-round, said Eliza Padilla, a 21-year-old manufacturing engineering technology major. But, after watching the BYU students take it for a test run, they got the idea.

"The kids ran at us in a mob," she said. "They were absolutely excited. They all wanted to be on it at once. The thing was piled with kids."

BYU students wired the generator to charge several dozen portable LED lights, which can be used in classrooms. The windows in the cinder-block school are small and, even during the day, it's difficult for students to see the chalkboard, Markham said.

The lights will power more than just the Golden Sunbeam School, however. At the end of the day, students can take the lights home.

"It's like a miracle to us, because we are always thinking about how to equip the children with a lamp, and all of a sudden it's here," said N.A. Kitson-Dodoo, principal of the Golden Sunbeam School, in a press release. "We are very grateful to the BYU university."

Although Charles Harrel, the BYU professor who oversaw the engineering project, called the power-producing merry-go-round a "genuine success," the group's main objective wasn't to equip one rural elementary school with electricity. They wanted to teach the local people how to build their own power source.

That's why they designed the merry-go-round to be built from used car parts and scrap metal — the kinds of materials that are readily available in Ghana.

Harrel and his students arrived in Ghana with little more than a blueprint for the project. With the help of local engineers, they scoured the street markets for supplies and assembled the merry-go-round.

"We didn't have time to make a complete prototype before we got to Ghana," Harrel said. "We worked out the critical things, but we had to rely on faith and hope that everything would come together."

The Ghanian workshop wasn't as well-equipped as the manufacturing lab at BYU. It was open-air, filled with mango trees instead of heavy equipment and, when it rained, workers had to wade through puddles, said Ed Packer, a manufacturing engineering technology major from Sandy. Instead of using plasma cutters to split pieces of steel, local engineers used hammers and chisels.

"They work a little differently than we do, but they are skilled machinists," he said. "This isn't something we just went and did for them. We gave them the design. We taught them how to put it together. They have the skills to replicate this."

Plans are in the works to install six more merry-go-rounds in Ghanian schools by the end of the year. Empower Playgrounds Inc. also is looking into designing electricity-generating zip lines and swing sets.

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President Kevin J Worthen

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