(IAP ’12) Shen Huang ’12

Third Blog-2/5/12: Wrap up

After three weeks in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, my IAP field experience has come to a close. I have made so many friends in this little community as I have worked every day side by side with them. I am proud to say that we have accomplished many things together and one day I hope to return to follow up on the projects we started, as well as work on new projects.

First of all, I have to give a special shout out to all the people who have helped me and made my experience here so much richer. I had a farewell party this past Wednesday evening, to have everybody together again for the last time. I also want to use this blog space to give thanks and recognition (following the Nicaraguan fashion, I’m told by Jorge) to especially the following people:

• Solar Agri-ecological promoters of Solar Mountain. Without this band of dedicated and hardworking people, I wouldn’t have been able to carry out such a successful installation of the drip kits. Special thanks to Julian for helping coordinate the group and giving very interesting expertise of local farming and Mayra for filling up the bags and big bucket every morning at 7am to nourish the little plants. The plants are already growing and I definitely want to come back someday to enjoy the harvest! In addition, I want to thank the Promoters for participating in my CCB and AT workshops as we explored ways to improve the Mountain.
• Jorge Lopez Gomez. Knowing so much about how to fix things, Jorge, the keeper of the shop keys and purveyor of hardware stores, has always been there for me to help install the three types of drip kits. We’ve discussed ideas and solutions together for a variety of different projects and I feel completely confident that after I leave, the drip kits will continue to be in good shape because if there’s any problem, Jorge will be there to fix it.

Jorge is so handy! Putting in rebar.

• Erika Gonzalez. For being a stellar model—a dedicated worker as well as a great administrator with much love for Sabana Grande, making sure that projects get going with the right materials and lots of momentum. Thanks also for organizing the Promoters to participate in the drip irrigation installation. I have worked closely with both Jorge and Erika, and it’s a great team to be a part of.

Erika on Solar Mountain

• Susan Kinne. For her enthusiasm and continued support, fostering a beautiful community of independent, strong people working on sustainable and renewable energy projects.

Susan, the enthusiastic founder of Grupo Fenix

Overall, the drip kits have been a success on numerous levels. People have been able to plant in the dry season and see results in less than a week! Already several people, including Mayra, want a little drip system of their own to plant a little garden at home. Nimia from the other group of people, the Solar Women Collective, recruited me to install a system she already had for the Solar Restaurant. Next week, the Promoters are going to fence the garden to prevent further damage from stray hens wandering in for a tasty bite, as well as expanding and installing another system by themselves to plant tomatoes, chiltoma, and cucumber. I’m really pleased with this! Hopefully in the near future, Sabana Grande will have fresh, organic produce to eat and sell.

Updated: Susan sent me a photo of the Promoters putting the fence up

The workshops had varying levels of success. People really responded to the last workshop, making cornshellers, because it was both relevant since corn is a staple around here and very hands on. The other AT demoes and creativity workshops were met with mixed reactions. It may have been a little too abstract, but mostly I think, they happened too early. I hadn’t really developed a strong relationship with the women at that point, but because of scheduling issues with the natural building course, it was the only time to conduct the workshops. In the future, I would like to return and conduct more workshops and discussions with the women. I think not only have I earned their trust, but they themselves have grown more confident with the participation in more projects.

What didn’t work so well were the design workshops with the youth. The biggest problem with the youth was their lack of internal organization, communication, and responsibility. There were some dysfunctional things going on, such as one member buying materials without consulting anybody, without any concrete design plan for the bike stand. In addition, nobody did their assigned homework from the workshop by coming up with 3 different ideas each for the structure. As a result, the design space was severely limited and the youth will have to figure out how to make a structural stand with the aluminum tube worth C$100 (a lot of money!). In addition, there were always a few absences or tardy arrivals in the group of 5 people, so it was hard to conduct a consistent, structured plan of attack to come up with a better structure.

Outside of my planned fellowship activities, I also participated in helping out people around the Mountain and also Solar Center. I helped put out some cob and fill up foundation bags for the classroom/meeting space people are constructing, building a fence around the tree nursery that is being picked to death by the hens, cleaning the solar water distiller, fixing the sagging tank structure. It’s been an absolutely great experience, to wake up early in the morning and go to work with many friends as we swap jokes, gossip, and stories. I have really enjoyed my time in Nicaragua and definitely want to come back to see the evolution and growth of Sabana Grande and its people.

Erika and I are filling up the “earth bags,” bags full of local rocks that will act as the foundation to the new learning center at Solar Mountain.

My project definitely has changed the way I think about the world and my place in it. First of all, building relationships with key stakeholders is so critical to the success of the project. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t consciously thinking that I need to build relationships in order to proceed. I like to talk to people and get to know them, and working and chatting are a great combination under the hot Nicaraguan sun. Pretty quickly I got to know so many people in the community and we always looked forward to working together and sharing some jokes. I really would love to come back, because my relationship is only just budding and as we shared more experiences together, people totally opened up and shared stories about their families and their hopes and frustrations. They are very loyal and friendly, and so eager to help realize the dream of having a better, more beautiful, sustainable community. I have discovered that I enjoy facilitating activities, to help people tap into their potential to actively make things happen. I really want to be part of the process of people realizing their own vision. I really admire their dedication and enthusiasm and it motivates me to becoming a better, more understanding person with a variety of skills to help out with this process.



Guest Blog-1/31/12: Community Voice, for Shen Huang’s Project of User Testing of Various Prepackaged Micro drip systems in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua.

By Susan Kinne, Director Programa de Fuentes Alternas de Energía, Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, Managua Nicaragua (Grupo Fenix)
Grupo Fenix’s work in the rural community of Sabana Grande in the North of Nicaragua is intentionally closely tied to universities and thesis projects. The vision is that the close work with centers of study and knowledge will empower the community to be problem solvers who contribute significantly to the large challenges of making small scale ecologically, economically and socially sustainable rural production work.

In that mode, we were delighted to have the opportunity to work with IAP ’12 student Shen Huang on her project to test out user friendliness of three prepackaged small scale micro drip systems.

Shen leading a workshop on drip irrigation

The main group with which Shen collaborated is organized as “The Solar Agro Ecological Promoters” and their projects take place on “The Solar Mountain” (We are a Solar Community you must know) 35 acres of degraded farmland mostly hillside. An important goal is creating jobs that demonstrate how human intervention can actually restore the health of the land as income is earned and a healthier community is built.

As Shen and the Promotores went through the workshops and solved the problems of setting up and getting the systems functioning, it was a living example of the vision we have in its working mode. All were learning, and the student, the promotores, the land and therefore the earth will be better off for the process.

Our own community now knows a lot more about micro drip than they would have from receiving a workshop first, and if we do have the opportunity to receive a workshop from a micro drip expert now, we have a group of people with experience and thirst to learn more to improve their success.

Cutting the lengths of drip tube

Placing the drip tubes on the field

Water dripping!

Vegetables will bring a good price in the community because vegetables are scarce in the dry season and still people will be paying less than if they had to go to the city to buy them. Women entered into planting an activity some thought only the men could do, and they have a living example of an inexpensive way to grow vegetables for family consumption and income generation during the dry season.
Team work between the Solar Promoters, the Grupo Fenix staff and Shen overcame obstacles that could have made it difficult to proceed for anyone group alone. Confidence, skills, and self esteem are growing as eagerly as the squashes.

A whole row of Pipian, soon there will be delicious organic vegetables to grace the families’ tables and to sell to the Solar Restaurant, without having to travel to the city of Ocotal.

We hope to continue on our own and also have return visits from Shen and other students.

Second Blog-1/22/12: Project Impact

It’s the midway point in my project—two weeks have passed, and I have about a week and half more to go before heading back to MIT. It’s only been a short time, but it seems like I have been here for a long time, because every day is a new day with different activities and progress is being made, slowly but surely.

Great community partner
First of all, I have to say that I feel so lucky for having found such a great community partner, Grupo Fenix. It is what makes a project successful with making goals that are set out to accomplish happen, facilitating connections with the local community members to take ownership of the project, and creating an incredible support system and camaraderie so that carrying out the project is a very enjoyable and valuable experience with many people. The community members are incredibly friendly and are always willing to help out on any projects going on—I have really enjoyed doing cross-culture exchanges as we swap stories, jokes, and dreams in Spanish while we work and eat and relax together. There is a really good mix of people in the community: children, teenagers, older people, artesans, homemakers, shop guys, farmers, and masons. In addition, Grupo Fenix is really open about learning and sharing, so there are always a handful of volunteers abroad here doing projects or taking classes about solar energy.

Empowering people with creativity techniques and design skills
From the first initial communications with Susan back in October to finally starting the project in January, I have felt that my project fits well with overall spirit of Grupo Fenix and the community of Sabana Grande. My project emphasizes building creative capacity, so that people can take control of the challenges they face in their daily lives and figure out inventive, appropriate solutions. Too often does international development comprise of donating technologies that are deemed helpful without any consultation of the people who will actually be using it. I’ve worked on helping facilitate the generation of ideas with two groups of people. First, I helped the Centro Solar shop guys Mauro and Jorge think about different possible solutions to the solar water tank being too heavy for its structure. Then, for three days I ran creativity workshops for the Solar Agri-Ecological Promoters and we thought of different ways to solve two of Solar Mountain’s biggest problems: deforestation and chickens destroying the garden.

Writing down possible solutions to the problems that most plague us in the Solar Mountain.

Empowering the women with more opportunities

There are already many people well-versed in building, creating, and fixing—and they have been absolutely wonderful in helping me out with technical advice—but they tend to be men in general. By working closely with the Solar Agri-Ecological Promoters of Solar Mountain, which consists mostly of women, I’m seeing them change from being shy and quiet, to being very active and full of opinions. For instance, it was extremely satisfying for me to see the women confidently use a hammer and pliers to make corn shellers and going back to make a couple more. Planting and tending to crops is still very much a masculine role here, so hopefully the drip irrigation kits project will help the women feel that they can play this role too.

The women making their corn shellers.

Long-term impact
The Solar Agri-Ecological Promoters are an active group who already tend to the Mountain by watering the 1500 trees planted a few years ago in a deforestation project. Watering the drip irrigation garden will be part of their daily routine.

Mayra and her son in the early morning filling the garbage bucket feeder system.

Julian, the coordinator of the group, is planning to schedule two women in rotation every day to water the garden once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As a result, the maintenance and upkeep will continue after I leave. Towards the end of this week, I will be meeting with Julian, Susan, and Erica in order to plan in detail what long-term prospects of the garden will be, as well as deciding what to monitor in order to gather data. We’ve planted cucumber, chayote, pumpkin, margarita flowers. In the future, I definitely hope to hear about and come back to see the fruits of our labor. The Promoters have several sub-committees, and one of them is “Venta” or sales. It hasn’t been active yet because there hasn’t been any harvest, but I would love to see in the future the Promoters generating some extra income from selling vegetables to the community. Right now, during the dry season, people are not planting or harvesting and have to go to either Somoto or Ocotal by bus (20 minutes away) to get some vegetables. In addition, a fruitful garden would also help promote healthier eating options—right now it’s not uncommon that a meal comprise of three types of starches: rice, tortilla, and potato.

Part of the Solar Mountain vision, beds of medicinal herbs are planted for community use and sale.

Lessons Learned

Easing into it.
Instead of jumping straight to installing drip kits and teaching workshops when I arrived, I spent about a week easing into the community, talking to key stakeholders, and assessing what’s here. Looking back, getting to know people and spending some time just chatting was the key to everything—from my enjoyment of being here to the success of my project. Susan was really amazing at connecting me to who’s who. With her support, quickly I knew what kind of skills people had, where to get materials, and who to ask for help when I needed it. This was great because I am here for a limited time and by working directly with people who command a lot of respect in the community, I had credibility as well as the advice of many great people.


Becoming a better engineer.
From working with especially Mauro, Jorge, Erica, and Julian, I’ve become a better engineer. They have a wealth of knowledge. I admire their practicality and inventiveness, born from having a limited resources and tools they have. For example, when adding silicone adhesive to try to glue the sub-main and drip tape together wasn’t water-tight enough, we came up with a sketch model to improve the system. We took PVC tubing and put it between these sub-main and drip tape and secured everything with a little bit of Teflon and rubber. The rubber was from an old bike tube. As one of the community members who I worked with here says, “Doing a little test doesn’t cost you anything.” Sometimes at MIT with a mountain of psets to do, I forget about that engineering isn’t all about crunching numbers and applying the right formulas to specific problems—it’s actually very synthetic and systems oriented. There are a lot of factors in the picture, and you have to figure out little by little how to solve and debug it. I really like that everything has been so hands-on here. It’s a network of connecting to people who are interested, finding unconventional materials that work out, and doing little experiments.

And finally, I think the best engineering that takes place is among a group of friends and colleagues—through lots of talking, joking, brainstorming, and encouragement. That’s what I’ve experienced here in Nicaragua. Having people, ideas, and creativity all come together to create a better place to live in is truly meaningful. It is my dream to continue to work like this.



First Blog-1/9/12: Introduction to Shen Huang’s IAP PSC Fellowship in Nicaragua

I’m Shen Huang, a senior in mechanical engineering, with a focus on sustainable development. I’ll be doing my IAP PSC fellowship in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua. My project entails building creative capacity, demonstrating appropriate technology, and conducting user-testing research for drip irrigation, a very effective and low cost type of appropriate technology, for my senior thesis. I’ll be working with Grupo Fenix, an organization that helps empower the community of Sabana Grande with support and projects focusing on long-term sustainability and the environment.

As undergraduate student at MIT, I have always like community organizing and coordinating events. In particular, I am especially interested in empowering people of any educational and vocational background with the tools to create, design, build, and improve. I believe strongly that technology doesn’t belong to a select group of people, like engineers for instance. I want to share the opportunities and knowledge I’ve gained through my several years at MIT (from sources such as MIT’s D-lab, which is a program that emphasizes appropriate technology for the developing world)—and a truly wonderful field to work on grassroots technology is international development.

This is me.

A month is a short time, so I’m planning to pack it with lots of activities!
1. Building creative capacity
I’m planning to share the design tools I’ve learned through classes like D-lab Design and 2.009 Product Development in order to help people start thinking systematically and creatively how to tackle and solve problems in their community. I want it to be really relevant, so we can focus on generating ideas and brainstorming what kinds of problems there are, and from there, think of as many solutions possible, and then maybe use an idea selection tool like the Pugh chart to compare ideas.

2. Demonstrating appropriate technologies (AT)
Part of learning how to design is knowing what’s already been invented and then applying it to the local context, so that it fits and makes sense. There’s a wealth of AT out there, and I’ll be selecting some ones that I think will be particularly relevant, as well as beautifully simple. Possible examples include corn shellers, pot-in-pot refrigerator, haybox cooking, and solar light water bottles.

A handmade cornsheller from sheet metal can help people take the corn kernels off much faster and more comfortably than by hand.

3. Conducting user-testing research for drip irrigation
For my senior thesis, I’m working with Derek Brine and Becca Smith of the D-lab Technology Evaluation Program.
Drip irrigation is a low cost, effective, and easily maintainable way to deliver water directly to the roots of plants. It can help families generate more income with a bigger harvest, as well as help families conserve water in this fashion of delivering water via controlled dripping instead of instantaneous flooding or dumping. I’ll be working with 10 farmers or so in a focus group setting. They will install the kits and then use them for a couple of weeks, and I will interview them after this pilot period in order to learn about their experience of using the drip systems. I plan to use two types of kits, IDE Family Nutrition System and Chapin Bucket Kit. People will be planting, but at this point, I am not sure what plants there are. I have some experience planting, but definitely want to learn more. Decisions of what to plant will be hopefully made by the people and not me—I think this will help the people feel more connected and take ownership of the project.

A typical drip kit set up. From http://blog.paulpolak.com/?p=249

I’ll be in Nicaragua from Jan 9 to Feb 2. I’ll be trying to blog as regularly as I can, although updating might be intermittent because from what I hear, I will have sparse internet connection at the site and have to go into town to be able to connect. This time corresponds to “summer” in Nicaragua, because it’s the dry season. It will be a great time to install the drip kits, because according to my community contact, Susan Kinne, the director of Grupo Fenix, people usually don’t plant during this time. I really hope that the people will be able to benefit from the drip kits by being able to grow vegetables.

I’ll be a little north of Esteli, close by the Honduran border.


I’ll be located in the rural community of Sabana Grande, part of the town Totolgalpa, in the department of Madriz, in northern Nicaragua. I’ll be working on Solar Mountain, a communal plot of land owned by Grupo Fenix. I’ll be living with a host family, which I’m really excited about.

Here’s a map of the community I will be staying with.

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