Finding knowledge and power on Rapa Nui.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 11:30am
Students on Rapa Nui

By Keely Savoie

A student on the island of Rapa Nui hunches over a bike, pedaling furiously to the cheering enthusiasm of his compatriots, chanting, “Go! Go! Go!” But instead of propelling the bike forward, he powers a blender, pureeing fruit into a froth.

The high school student is one of seven who took part last summer in an engineering program on the wind-swept island commonly known as Easter Island. Rapa Nui, a territory of Chile, has drawn archeologists to its rocky shores for decades to study the famous and mysterious monuments, called moai. And each year, Dylan Shepardson, an assistant professor of mathematics at Mount Holyoke College, selects two Mount Holyoke students to participate in the Terevaka Archaeological Outreach (TAO) program. The educational and community outreach effort is run by his brother, archeologist Britton Shepardson.

This year, in addition to the archeological education course offered to Rapa Nui high school students, the TAO program included an engineering track designed to confront real issues facing the island: desalination and energy generation.

Watch video of Rapa Nui students blending a smoothie with a bike-powered motor:

“We wanted to get them thinking about the things that the island really needs and that it is currently reliant on outside sources for, while also introducing them to concepts of engineering and technology,” said Shepardson.

With the help of engineers Marilla Lamb and Matthew Petney, both of whom were involved in the US Department of Energy’s Wind for Schools Project, the Shepardsons designed the curriculum to give the high school students enough basic engineering knowledge to devise alternatives to the diesel-powered generator that runs the island’s energy plant.

The first lesson: creating micro-generators. Using a magnet and copper wire, the students created enough energy to power a small light-emitting diode (LED) bulb. Later, they toured the diesel-powered generator that produces the electricity on the island, and learned that it uses 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel a month.

It didn’t take long for the students to realize that the same concept that let them generate power from a magnet and a coil was what the power plant used on a much vaster scale.

“All power plants function in essentially the same way,” explained Shepardson. “They use some external source of fuel or energy to rotate a metal conductor through a magnetic field, and that creates electric current. The students were able to connect what happens in this diesel plant to what they had already done, and that started a conversation about if there were other ways to be able to accomplish the same thing in a cleaner way.”

The students went on to develop several projects over the two-week course. They designed a desalination project to generate fresh water from salt water; a bike-powered incandescent light bulb; and the bike-powered blender.

“It was exciting [for them] to see and understand something so common in their life,” said Petney. “The whole concept of generating electricity is like magic to a lot of us, and with this curriculum we completely demystified it for them.”

As with any learning process, there were some high points and low points. In their first attempt at desalinating salt water, the students used fire to heat water into vapor to recapture the salt-free steam, Petney said. But the project went awry when the fire melted part of the contraption, spilling salt water into the fire.

“Even after that hard failure, they persevered,” he said. “One of the coolest things about the students was their persistence in the face of challenge.”

For the final project, the students designed and built a wind turbine made entirely of scraps from the recycling plant.

“They cut the blades from a plastic tub, they took an old motor from a washing machine, they had a gearbox that came from an old dryer, and they took a belt from a car. Then they mounted it all on a wooden plank,” explained Shepardson.

While the turbine didn’t capture enough wind power to get off the ground, the project was a successful implementation of the students’ new knowledge.

“If you turned it by hand, it did generate electricity,” said Shepardson. “There’s no question that if we had more time we would have gotten there.”

Next summer, Shepardson hopes to offer the engineering program again, bringing a new sense of pride and self-sufficiency to the students who take it.

“Everyone really got something from it—our students, the engineers, the teachers,” he said. “It was better than I dared hope.”

Inspired? Find out what energizes you. Learn more.