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MBA Students Spread Sustainability Around The Globe - Thailand Solar Project

Contributed by  John Lehnert, Presidio Graduate School MBA graduate, 2011.

Every year, students from Presidio Graduate School's International Club venture abroad to put their sustainability training into action. Some students will pursue careers in international development. One group recently went to Thailand, with help from a Presidio student who is Thai himself. Their journey -- installing solar panels, learning about renewable energy, and teaching others about design thinking -- is described below.

January 2012: On a sunny day in western Thailand, our Presidio Graduate School group joined dozens of schoolchildren on a bare field for a game of soccer. We shared high fives after each goal—a fun conclusion to a day during which we installed a solar panel at a school near the Burmese border.

After 20 hours of flying, our group of 14 (mostly students, with a few alumni and significant others) met in Bangkok and headed north in two vans. Crossing the flat central expanse of rice fields, we reached our first stop, Chiang Mai. We led a workshop for university students and faculty on design thinking: a collaborative process in which teams define a problem, brainstorm solutions, select the best ones and then have fun making prototypes.

We continued on to Mae Sot, the base for our solar project. With a morning stop at the offices of BGET (Border Green Energy Team), our project partner, we loaded up the solar panel system. Following a winding road that turned to dirt, we headed to the school compound, composed of classroom spaces, a kitchen building and sleeping quarters for roughly 75 children aged four to 12. Our installation added a 2nd solar panel, doubling the power to light the kitchen and sleeping space.

We fashioned a post and support platform for the panel. More accurate with the saw than the hammer, we amused the local men as we bent a few nails. We dug a post hole and a trench for the power cable, plugged it all together, and soon the system was delivering power.

The next day, half of our Presidio group joined staff and schoolchildren to collect lumber for a new building. The locals made the short river crossing to Burma, where pre-cut planks and bamboo poles were waiting, just below a guard post flying the Burmese army flag. Half of our group remained at the school to dig the post holes.  

About 100 students study here. Many are from the Karen ethnic group, as are some of the BGET staff; the students are the children of migrant Burmese workers who labor in nearby fields. Earning barely enough to support themselves, they couldn’t afford the fees to put their children in school back home. The children are quick to return a smile, and they are eager students and avid artists, with their drawings covering the classroom walls. While some of us worked on the solar installation, others taught games to the kids (who eagerly embraced their teams of cats, dogs, tigers and birds and the appropriate animal noises). We finished up in the classroom singing “itsy bitsy spider.”

One of the BGET staff comes from a western province in Burma and spent years in an orphanage. He was the first from the orphanage to graduate from college. We hope that the young schoolgirl who expressed a desire to become a scientist will be able to pursue her own advanced education.

Our last event was in Phitsanulok, after visiting the magnificent temple ruins in Sukhothai. We facilitated a sustainability discussion at the School for Renewable Energy Technology (part if Naresuan University), using the word café model (small groups discuss a topic and share it back). The faculty and students—PhD and MS—showed us their research installations: solar panels, solar reflectors, biogas engines, insulating walls, charcoal production, and even solar cooling.

Finally we headed to the beach at Pattaya, where we raised a toast to student John-Paul Chulliyil, our trip leader; Somsak “Pai” Boonkam, our local connection who arranged the project and accommodations; and Jenny Hoang, for supporting fundraising events for the solar panel. We were touched by the welcome we received at each stop and impressed by the potential demonstrated by schoolchildren and graduate students alike.