Breadboards, Circuits, and Solar Panels… Oh My!

What exactly are you doing this summer? Are you going to Uganda or Ghana? You better watch out for ebola while you’re there. Did you get all of your shots? What’s the weather like? I went on a safari once in Africa. Are you like building houses or something? This will be such a life changing experience. Where will you be living? You’re GHANA have a really great time this summer. Don’t drink the water. Are you nervous?

I have spent the last few weeks answering endless questions, pretending to laugh at Ghana puns, and listening to advice from friends and family as I prepare for my trip. Everyone seems eager to offer their opinion, regardless of their knowledge, or lack thereof, about Ghana. The last question is the one that seems to be the most common and the most difficult to answer. Yes, I am nervous, but not because I will be in a foreign country for almost nine weeks. There is only one thing on my mind. Lithium ion batteries.

Nick and I are planning to implement a senior design project developed by two SCU students while we are working in Ghana this summer. The project aims to teach children about circuits, voltage, power, and electricity. Each Ghanaian student is provided with a breadboard and basic circuit components including LEDs, wires and batteries. We will use a series of lesson plans to teach the students about electricity and how to build circuits. The circuits are then charged with a solar panel and can be used as lights at night. The circuitry is pretty simple and I am comfortable teaching it; the main challenge is actually getting everything to Ghana. Because they don’t have access to all of the items we need and shipping is so expensive, I am bringing everything in my suitcase. With this there are two main issues: an extremely oversized solar panel and illegal batteries.

If you read the word “breadboard” and pictured a loaf of bread on a cutting board, hopefully this sets you on the right track. A and B are LEDs, C-E are resistors, F is wires, G is a breadboard, H is the battery, and I is a barrel jack. For more detailed information, I recommend checking out Wikipedia.

The solar panel is a problem because it is so large and costly to ship. I have to bring it as a carry on item on the plane, but it is an oversized item so it costs extra to check. It costs more to ship a solar panel than it does to buy it. Not to mention that I will look ridiculous when I arrive in the airport. Suitcase in one hand and solar panel in the other. As if I needed another reason to stick out.

The lithium batteries are a challenge because I still am awaiting their arrival at my house and I leave in three days. I’m in contact with the seller in China and he assured me that the batteries have arrived somewhere in the United States. California, Alaska, or maybe Florida? Fingers crossed it’s somewhere close to Massachusetts. Even if they arrive in time, there’s a chance I may not be able to bring them on the plane. Lithium ion batteries are considered a hazardous material because of their tendency to overheat and catch on fire. Hardly reason to give an airline concern, right? The airline only allows a traveler to bring two lithium ion batteries and they must be in a carry on bag. Well, I have 20. After spending an hour on the phone with the airline in hopes of being granted an exception, the man on the other end came to the conclusion that the decision could not be made over the phone. He recommended that I travel to the airport and ask the them for an exception. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on TSA’s final decision.

I am largely afraid that the batteries won’t arrive in time and I will let everyone down about the project. If they don’t come before I leave, I am sure we can find a way to get them to Ghana but it may take a lot longer than expected. Other than the overwhelming fear of disappointing Bernice and Nick upon my arrival, I am feeling ready to go. My suitcase is packed with 20 breadboards, 150 resistors, 320 LEDS, wires, 4 charge controllers, 45 barrel jacks, a small pharmacy, granola bars, and a few articles of clothing. Needless to say I’m TSA’s most annoying traveler.

Besides worrying about the arrival of the batteries, I’ve spent my two weeks of summer vacation doing the most American things I could think of. I went to a baseball game at Fenway Park, spent a day at the beach, drank a few Dunkin Donuts iced coffees (okay maybe that’s just a Massachusetts thing to do) and went to a concert. Now that I’ve had my fun in America, I am ready for a new adventure. I am ready to dive head first into a new way of living. Ghana holds a new culture, a unique beauty, an unknown danger, and a new sense of happiness, and I am ready to explore all of it.

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