There is nothing more powerful than engineering students, professors, and volunteers working as a team to create a positive impact in a community through service learning. By working hand in hand with a community partner, teams can create stronger, more practical solutions to improve communities. The Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS in IEEE) program gives students a platform to work with engineering professionals to develop solutions that transform communities across the globe. To help support service learning teams, EPICS in IEEE partnered with IEEE Standards Association to fund two projects based in Colombia. In addition to the funding, Ernesto Vega Janica Senior Manager, Opportunities Development with the IEEE Standards Association, provided mentorship which contributed to the success of the projects.

EPICS in IEEE interviewed Ernesto Vega Janica to talk about his experience as a mentor. Vega Janica worked with student teams for both The Renewable Power Source(s) and Related Technologies Vehicle for Educational Outreach Project and Space and Agriculture Robotics (RoKit) projects, which kicked off in Fall 2022.

Through partnering with a community organization, service learning projects provide benefits to both the local community and the students directly involved in applying engineering design to real-world solutions. One student from the Vehicle for Educational Outreach project team reflected, “In addition to improving our technical skills in renewable energy and other related technical areas, this project has helped us strengthen our leadership, management, and project management skills, and added value to our overall development with a more social and educational connotation or impact.” Xelena Patricia Maiguel Saavedra is an undergraduate student in the School of Electronic Engineering at Universidad del Norte and has been an integral part of the project team.

Both projects had the goal of strengthening STEM education in the school system while also improving the agricultural systems in rural areas. The projects achieved this through the introduction and implementation of sustainable technologies and power sources. The students had the opportunity to work directly with the community organizations and the school boards to get their project started.

The project teams were both composed of students at Universidad del Norte, as well as IEEE volunteers and IEEE Senior Members. “Having IEEE Senior Members leading the development and implementation of these projects really pays off,” Vega Janica says. “You need people you can trust technically, professionally, and ethically; and I think IEEE brings that to the table.”

The Renewable Power Source(s) and Related Technologies Vehicle for Educational Outreach project focused on closing the gap between the region’s needs and available technologies. Similar to the MOVE (Mobile Outreach Vehicle) Program by IEEE-USA, the team created a technological vehicle implemented with various types of renewable energy to solve these problems. This vehicle was assembled in their engineering lab and will serve the purpose of showcasing renewable energy, enlightening the community, as well as providing energy for the community in times of need. The vehicle will be controlled by Uninorte Social and used in cooperation with emergency relief programs in times when relief is needed.

The team partnered with Uninorte Social, a collaborative program at the Escuela Superior Normal in the Municipality of Manatí, the Global Active Problem Solving (GAPS) team at Purdue University, as well as SIERGROUP S.A.S, a small electrical company composed of electrical engineering alumni of Universidad de Norte. “Purdue EPICS and the GAPS team are working collaboratively with Universidad del Norte on a project that began in the fall of 2022 with the goal of creating a vehicle that would be an outreach and educational platform,” remarked William Oakes, PE, Director of the EPICS Program at Purdue University. “EPICS in IEEE funding is critical to being able to purchase the materials that will ultimately result in a demonstration vehicle to be used at the university and pre-university schools in the local area to educate about solar power and electric vehicles. The students involved in the project are learning critical professional skills in addition to technical skills such as teamwork and leadership, written and oral communication, user-centered design, safety and engineering standards, ethical decision making, and sustainable design.”

In the Rokit project, the team created 10 modular robotics kits specialized in agriculture to educate Colombian students on three areas of knowledge: Agriculture, Environment, and Physics. By using these kits, the Colombian students will gain soft skills in problem-solving, creativity, and leadership, as well as hard skills in programming, data analytics, basic physics, electronic, and ecological awareness. “I think this particular project will help younger generations learn about STEM careers and how these technologies can improve the quality of life for many underserved communities,” Vega Janica says.

The university students involved also gained knowledge that they can leverage for their future careers. Project team member Camilo Andres Segura stated that “the 8 member university team, all from different disciplines, had a great experience through this project and are grateful to have this experience to share on their CVs. In addition, the project programming was done through Open Source allowing the entrepreneurial-minded students the opportunity to expand on their work as they begin their careers.”

The incredible impact on the community through the Rokit project, in addition to the benefits for the student participants, can be seen through the replacement of typical agricultural practices with sustainable technologies. These robotics kits have the ability to move on their own, plant crops, measure physical, chemical, and environmental variables, recognize their surroundings, and be programmed and controlled by different devices. The team from IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society (AESS) Unicauca partnered with the organizations Happlab Seedbed (R&D Group in Computational Intelligence) and Natues STEAM to ensure the robots would meet the needs of the community.

Both EPICS in IEEE and the IEEE Standards Association are thrilled to support these projects and can’t wait to see the end result in the next few months. “Having these hands-on experiences will show students that these projects are achievable, even in remote, and usually neglected communities,” Vega Janica says.

“The EPICS in IEEE committee is extremely grateful for the partnership that we have created with the IEEE Standards Association and the projects that we have been able to support in Colombia. Thank you to Ernesto for your passion and dedication to these projects and the EPICS in IEEE Program,” shared Dr. Stephanie Gillespie, EPICS in IEEE Chair. “We look forward to continuing our partnership as we support projects around the globe that are impacting communities and helping to prepare the next generation of engineers.”

And a special thank you to Ernesto Vega Janica for his support with EPICS in IEEE and for sharing his experience.