Most children in Essam, Ghana, had never seen a merry-go-round until a Brigham Young University-led team arrived to install the curious device in their village. For more than 200 children, the installation day was memorable not only because they took a new toy for a joyous, dizzy spin — or two, or three — but also because, for the first time, they lit up their school with kid power.
“It’s a double dream come true,” says Monica Opare, founder of the Golden Sunbeam charity school, “because we are going to get equipment that the children can play with and then at the same time we are going to get electricity from it and that is exciting.”
“These villages and schools don’t have electricity. As children push the merry-go-round, it will generate electricity that will light the school rooms,” says BYU professor Charles Harrell from the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology.
Harrell and five technology students recently traveled to Ghana where they worked alongside Ghanaian colleagues to build and install the power-generating merry-go-round, as part of a senior Capstone project sponsored by Empower Playgrounds, Inc. The group was greeted with enthusiastic dances, music and high-fives from swarms of smiling school children. As he took a ride on the contraption, the village chief — dressed in traditional robes — smiled and nodded his approval.
The Essam merry-go-round is the first to be installed in a village where there is no electricity. Ghana’s Ministry of Education would like to have six more merry-go-rounds installed in villages this year, to see if they can provide a viable power option for some 10,000 Ghanaian public schools that currently have no power source.
“Our objective overall is to improve quality of life in rural Ghana,” says Empower Playgrounds founder Ben Markham. “This project will enhance education by providing power for lighting, giving children opportunities for fun and also giving them a hands-on science laboratory.”
“In the rural villages the kids almost have no toys. I seldom saw the kids playing with anything other than a car tire or something else that could be used as a wheel,” says Markham, a retired engineer who served in Ghana as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When he approached BYU about the project, Markham challenged BYU students to engineer a device that could generate power but would be fun, not work, for the children. To make it fun to ride, the students used a gearbox to multiply the rotation speed and incorporated circuitry to limit the amount of energy extracted from the system.
“The spinning is converted through a gearbox. The gearbox takes their rotation and multiplies it by 35, which then spins the generator and the generator is what converts that energy into electrical energy,” says BYU technology student Ben Drewry.
“So we’ve tried to balance fun, and getting an interesting amount of power from the device,” says Markham.
The power generated by the merry-go-round is stored in a car battery that recharges several dozen portable LED lights that can be used in classrooms and homes. Many families have little or no lighting in the evenings, relying on kerosene lamps, candles, or open flame “bobo” lights. Markham hopes that better lighting at home will lead to greater literacy and productivity for children and their families.
“Once the students have finished learning in the schoolrooms, they’re able to take one of these lamps home with them to light their homes,” added Harrell.
“We can right now have light for the kids, we can have evening classes, their parents can encourage them to do their assignments at home, and I can just imagine what it is going to be like; it’s like a liberation,” says Opare.
Although the current system is designed to charge the LED lights, Markham says the merry-go-round can be used for other applications.
“The amount of power available would easily recharge cell phones and laptop computers, which will probably be uses we’ll look to in the future,” he says.
Like many Ghanaian schools, the Golden Sunbeam School in central Ghana is located far off the power grid and can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars to bring electric service to the village, or to pay monthly power bills. On average, villagers make less than a dollar per day.
“We have tried to work with many big men in Ghana to bring electricity to our village but it’s not working because it’s a lot of money,” says Opare. The charity school has also tried using a generator but can’t keep up with maintenance and fuel bills.
“The cost of a generator to provide this much power is about the same as to put in one of these playgrounds. They are not nearly as much fun for the kids to play with and instead of using kid power, they use diesel fuel, another expensive and hard to transport commodity in rural Ghana,” says Markham.
With donor support, Empower Playgrounds hopes to bring inexpensive lighting and playground equipment to thousands of schools in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.
BYU engineering and technology students worked more than a year on the prototype merry-go-round which is designed to be built with materials available in Ghana including recycled car parts.
“What we’d like to accomplish is not just to build a single prototype but to define a process, that is replicable, so that other facilities in Ghana, and in any part of the world, could duplicate this same process,” says Harrell.
BYU technology and engineering education students are also developing an educational curriculum, so the merry-go-round can be used as a hands-on science lesson.
“Hopefully it will give them an educational tool to show the children different applications of science, how to convert their energy into light energy,” says technology student Drewry.
Kweku Anno of Accra-based Anno Engineering, Ltd, believes the exposure to science is one of the most important aspects of the project.
“In Ghana, we unfortunately are not taught hands-on skills so just a small opportunity is all it will take. You never know, there might be a young Thomas Edison waiting to be discovered,” he said.
In May, students from the Marriott School of Management met with Ghanaian education officials and made village school visits to identify site selection criteria for future Empower Playgrounds projects. In addition to the merry-go-round design, EPI is also investigating designs for an electricity-generating zip line and a swing set to provide additional play and power for village schools. For more information, see www.empowerplaygrounds.org.