Winds of Change 

It may be difficult to imagine, but it's a fact of daily—and especially nightly—life that nearly a quarter of the world’s population has no electricity in their homes. It’s also a global problem that Innovative Engineers, one of the University of Minnesota’s newest student groups, is eager to help solve with renewable energy technologies.

In just its third year, more than 150 students from all engineering disciplines in the University’s College of Science and Engineering expressed an interest in joining Innovative Engineers this fall. This growing interest clearly demonstrates how enthusiastic the college’s students are to use their technical skills to impact the world.

“It may sound cliché, but our group is truly passionate about developing imaginative and creative ways to design and implement renewable energy technologies in the developing world,” said David Giacomin, Innovative Engineers president and civil engineering student. “We have close to 90 solid members now. It’s really exciting.”

The inspiration for Innovative Engineers started in May 2009 when Alejandro De la Mora, a 2010 civil engineering graduate, traveled to Scandinavia with other University of Minnesota engineering students to participate in a College of Science and Engineering Global Seminar.

“They just wanted to be able to turn on a light bulb and listen to the radio so they could get their news and know what's going on in the country.” Scott Morton

The three-week seminar, which was led by Paul Imbertson who teaches in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, focused on renewable energy production methods and included visits to wind farms, power plants, hydro facilities, and solar component manufacturers.

During the seminar, De la Mora became intrigued by wind power and its ability to shape the future. He spoke to Imbertson about his desire to build a wind turbine. With Imbertson’s help, it wasn’t long before De la Mora and four fellow engineering students began designing and constructing the wind turbine in Imbertson’s basement. That following semester, Innovative Engineers was officially founded, and Imbertson became advisor of the group.

“It says a lot about our faculty to give us use of their [Imbertson’s] basement. It certainly isn’t in his job description,” said Scott Morton, former president of Innovative Engineers and mechanical engineering student.

“Imbertson’s leadership style is very hands-off. He tells us what he thinks and asks probing questions, yet in the end, he lets us blaze our own trail and learn from our mistakes. He helps us to develop skills that will make us better engineers,” Morton added. 

The answer is blowing in the wind

Located a half-hour ride up a dirt road from the city of Jinotega, in the northwestern part of Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, is the village of La Hermita. With a population of about 120—or 25 families—it’s a close-knit community where residents cultivate crops like corn, beans, and squash and where meager electrical devices are powered by old car batteries. 

In 2006, the University’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which Imbertson also advises, built a wind turbine for the village of La Hermita to power a community water pump. Similarly, Innovative Engineers saw a need they could fulfill for the village with their own wind turbine project. Before the wind turbine was built, village residents traveled regularly to the nearest town by horseback to have their batteries recharged. The process could take up to an entire day. 

“They just wanted to be able to turn on a light bulb and listen to the radio so they could get their news and know what’s going on in the country. We take these things for granted,” Morton said. 

After several trips to La Hermita, this past summer Innovative Engineers completed the wind turbine, which now sits on top of a beautiful mountain. It generates one kilowatt of electricity—enough to recharge batteries so they will last about three weeks. 

“A lot of teamwork and relationship building with local Nicaraguan students and businesses, as well as with the La Hermita villagers, went into getting the wind turbine up and running,” said Alejandro Ojeda, Innovative Engineers Global Coordinator and biomedical engineering student. “The experience was a real hands-on education. I just went to build something, but came back learning so much more—marketing, public speaking, leading and managing a group, and gaining a much broader perspective of the world.” 

Although wind power generates electricity and convenience for La Hermita, the group cautions that they are not out to change the cultural way of life for its residents. “We don’t want to be seen as ‘rescuers,’” Morton points out. “We want to help them understand how they can progress with this renewable technology as a community through education and by expanding our relationship.” 

“To put it another way, it does no good to give someone a clock if that person doesn’t know how to tell time,” said Giacomin. “We’re here to educate the community and empower them with knowledge in the process.” 

Changing the world, one turbine at a time

Now that one turbine is up and running, the group has even greater plans for this small Nicaraguan community. 

Innovative Engineers’ newest project, coined “5-5-1”, consists of designing and developing five wind turbines in five nearby villages to create one renewable energy community. All aspects of 5-5-1 are shaped around one central idea—to understand how the knowledge behind a simple low-cost wind turbine design can be successfully transferred acorss cultural, economic, and language boundaries. 

It's an ambitious project that requires cash, connections, and brainpower. Cost are estimated to be about $17,000, which includes wind turbine materials, support tower fabrication, tower components, and half of the travel and lodging expenses for several students. 

The group plans to teach the Nicaraguan village communities how the turbines work and how to repair them. Once the village communities understand how the turbines function, the group hopes the residents will be able to alter and modify the designs so they can construct new wind turbines and replacement parts independently, ultimately discovering new designs and solutions for their own success. 

“So far, we have a passionate group, a lab in Keller Hall, and help from the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s machine shop. We also have our first successfully completed wind turbine that will serve as a template for future models made of low-cost, recycled materials,” Giacomin said. “Now we just need the financial support.” Even though Innovative Engineers receives some money from the University for being an organized student group, the group is responsible for raising their own funds and finding resources necessary for projects. 

“That’s where we have an opportunity to develop our marketing skills,” Ojeda said. “We plan to work on more fundraising this year by promoting ourselves to various organizations. Some of our college’s departments and centers already have helped. In addition, several corporations have provided discounted and in-kind materials.” 

Considering their shoestring budget, the students pay at least half of the costs to travel to Nicaragua, typically lodging at low-cost youth hostels and camping out in the rural areas. 

“One night we were camped in an area where animals wandered freely, including a horse that nearly scared me to death,” Morton said. 

The students also have saved money on shipping materials to Nicaragua through their creative ways. “We took apart the generators and carried the pieces in our baggage,” Giacomin said. “I stuffed an oscilloscope—an instrument that measures wave action—in my luggage on one trip.” 

Becoming better engineers

While Innovative Engineers continues to refine its goals and objectives, the group has plans to move forward in other areas of renewable energy. Projects are currently under way to develop hydro-power in Nicaragua, harness untapped energy in oceanic waves, create a more aerodynamically efficient blade for wind turbines, and produce a very inexpensive, mobile, functional wind speed meter. 

A large part of the group’s philosophy is also to make a positive impact through education and outreach. They actively promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects in the developing world as well as locally in Minnesota to middle schools and high schools. 

“We believe that a smart world is built with smart people, and passion is the ultimate driving force. We want to share that passion with young students by inspiring them about science and technology and what we’re doing,” said Ojeda. 

Although most CSE students who participate in Innovative Engineers are pursuing rigorous engineering programs that require a great deal of studying outside of class, they are up to the challenge as evidenced by their growing numbers. 

"This group attracts students who want to experience and strive for their own creativity." -David Giacomin

“Time management is key to being in this student group. The last time I went to the movies was more than a year ago,” said Ojeda, who would like to work for a medical device company after he graduates. “I’m interested in health care and medical innovation. I want to see science and technology serve a useful purpose to improve the standard of living for all people, and I believe health care provides a great starting point for that.” 

For Giacomin, whose career interests lie in finding ways to use the world’s resources more efficiently, there’s no downtime. “This group is my fun, and it doubles as my social life,” he said. “It gives me the chance to work with my hands, and it makes you feel that there’s a lot in this world you can change.” 

“This group attracts students who want to experience and strive for their own creativity,” Giacomin added. “It teaches us how to become better professionals. We learn from each other, we work hard, and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty.”