Six months after they spent their spring break in Haiti to assess the reality of post-earthquake foreign aid, FIU students are being recognized for their proposal for sustainable development in the country. The team of two students from the College of Engineering & Computing and one student from the School of Architecture won third place in the Odebrecht Award for Sustainable Development, presented Sept. 9 in Miami.
In March of this year, during spring break, Paola Davalos, an undergraduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Sergio Baltodano, an undergraduate student in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, traveled to Haiti. Amanda Velazquez, a student in the School of Architecture, developed the design plan for the architecture in their proposal.
More than three years had passed since a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the country, its epicenter just 16 miles west of the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince. The earthquake and its aftershocks killed more than 100,000 people and an estimated three million people were affected. Humanitarian aid poured into the country, but infrastructure destroyed by the quake, confusion over who was in charge, and prioritization of flights, among other factors, hampered early relief efforts. To date, only a fraction of the $9 billion pledged has reached Haiti.
After visiting Haiti and talking to the people there, Davalos and Baltodano worked with Velasquez on a 21-page proposal describing the design and implementation of a technological, communal and agricultural training program for sustainable development in rural Haiti.
The team’s adviser was Andres Tremante, an instructor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who suggested the students focus on this issue. He thought they would be better served getting out into the rural areas away from the Haitian capital.
“We traveled to two different border regions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” Davalos explained. “We decided to self-fund our trip, so we can go and get a better perspective of what’s going on and how do people perceive aid and what are the real challenges they’re facing.”
Davalos and Baltodano interviewed people in both countries that share the island, discussing issues such as migration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and the social problems it causes. They also got a first-hand look at the environmental differences between the lushly forested areas of the Dominican Republic and the vastly deforested areas in Haiti.
“Although Haitians appreciate foreign aid, we learned that they wanted the tools and the education and the means to be able to deal with the problems that the nation faces on their own,” Davalos said. “They want to be able to take care of their own families and their own villages.”
Baltodano said the experience of talking with the Haitian people had a deep impact on him and in the team’s writing of the proposal for the Odebrecht Award.
“Instead of just reading from research online and in libraries, actually being there was very impactful,” he said. “We saw so many things – people without electricity, for instance – and it gave us the push to try to come up with innovative ways to help these communities and provide them with renewable energy. “
By interacting with the people in Haiti, the students discovered that education is the key element in making their proposal work. The only way to go about putting green energy systems into the hands of people in rural Haiti was through a technical and communal-based education program.
“That’s when it all started to make sense,” Davalos said. “All of these little integrated aspects that our project encompassed – the disaster-resistant housing, the waste-water treatment, reforestation and agricultural stability – it all tied together with education.”
Third place includes a cash prize of $10,000, with half going to the students and the other half split between Tremante and FIU.
Last year, FIU was recognized for taking 4th, 5th and 6th place in the competition. This year’s competition involved more than 200 universities and 450 proposals. Tremante said FIU’s third place finish is even more impressive considering the teams that placed first and second, the University of Cincinnati and the University of California, Berkely, were comprised of graduate students with projects funded by the National Science Foundation.
“It was really a spectacular moment,” Tremante said of the awards ceremony. “The students were sad, but they knew we had already won from the moment we learned we were among the top three finalists.”
Baltodano said it was an honor for him and his fellow students to represent FIU.
“To be up there and make FIU proud competing next to these big schools in a national competition was a huge honor for us and our families to see us up there,” Baltodano said. “It was a very, very special moment for us.”
Following up on the success of this proposal, the students are expanding the scope of their project to investigate sustainable energy storage systems that don’t rely on batteries.
“Because of the recognition of this project we’ve been allowed to continue our undergraduate research to work on the development of these concepts,” Davalos said. “Now is the time to test it and make sure that it works.”