Study abroad opportunities offer college students a chance to build their resume before they enter the workforce.
No one knows this better than Mitchell Peeler, an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering-Paducah extended campus. He traveled with nine other students and engineering professor Jeffrey Seay in May to Cameroon, Africa, as a part of a Global Service Learning in Engineering class.
For Peeler, who will be a senior this fall, this was his second trip to the sub-Saharan country.
"I've been to several job fairs. When they see (Cameroon) on my resume, it sets you apart from others in the room," he said.
Seay's students are involved in ongoing research in sustainable biofuels in partnership with the African Centre for Renewable Energy & Sustainable Technology (ACREST), a non-governmental organization that maintains a technology center and workshop in the village of Bangang in rural Cameroon.
ACREST has worked with various U.S. universities, including UK and Purdue, to develop low-cost, sustainable solutions to improve the standard of living in underdeveloped regions of Africa.
"For the most part, as a college student, your goal is to impress a professor for a grade," Seay said. Having these experiences abroad, he said, makes students more attractive to a prospective employer.
"All companies these days are globally active. Having this on their (student's) resume says 'I have a passport. I'm not afraid to navigate in an unfamiliar environment.' These are real, tangible benefits to an employer," Seay said.
The UK College of Engineering has been a partner with ACREST since 2011. The first student trip to Bangang was in May 2012, focused on exploration of the area and its resources. The trip was funded through private donations.
UK research students weren't able to travel to Africa in 2013 because the program did not have the necessary funds, Seay said, but in 2014, an anonymous donor helped them pay airfare for a second trip. The program currently has enough money left from the anonymous donation to send a small group back to Cameroon in 2015, he noted.
In May, the team was successful in producing biodiesel for a basic utility vehicle (BUV), which is essentially a three-wheeled farm cart built from junkyard car parts and powered by a diesel motor.
Because it is too costly for anyone who lives in the village to own a vehicle, ACREST rents the vehicle to villagers at a low cost. This is especially important during harvest time, Seay said, as villagers can get their crops to market faster.
"To bring their crops to Chong, the nearest big city, it'd take all day to carry or pull in a cart," Seay explained.
Unlike making biodiesel in the U.S., the process in Cameroon is powered by a wood fire, has no electronic controls and is built from used oil drums and sheet metal.
"We want to make this as sustainable as possible," said Bradley Butler, a mechanical engineering graduate student who helped build biodiesel reactors in Cameroon.
It took the students three days to build two reactors in Cameroon. With only one welding machine available and the nearest store a half day's ride away, it was a slow pace.
"The pace of life is very different," Seay said. "As Americans, we're used to getting things right away. If we want to know something, we look it up on the Internet. If we want to buy something, we get it in town or order it on Amazon and overnight it."
Instead, if you need a part or to buy a product, he said, "it's going to take all day or maybe two. We're used to getting in the car to go to the store to buy one item. You can't do that in Africa. That's why the students have to go there," Seay said. "Whatever misconceptions they might have had about Africa go out the window."
Biodiesel is made from castor oil, methanol and lye. Each reactor can make five gallons of fuel per batch. Because there is no gas station in the village, having a local source of fuel is important, Seay said.
Having built a reactor prototype and conducted experiments in the lab at UK-Paducah, the students knew the end product would work as a fuel, but seeing the BUV running on their biodiesel for the first time was something Peeler won't ever forget.
"It was awesome," he said. "We gave them something that was completely unthought of before we got there."
Other students who participated in the study abroad trip were Max Croft, chemical engineering; William Croft, chemical engineering; Keaton Johnson, chemical engineering; Chandni Joshi, chemical engineering; Kyle Lewis, mechanical engineering; Christina Willett Trammell, chemical engineering; Sarah Willett, a Marshall County graduate and incoming chemical engineering freshman; and Zac Watson, mechanical engineering.
Seay said the college will continue its partnership in Cameroon, helping maintain the reactors and collecting data on the amount of biofuel ACREST is making and its impact on the local community.
Contact Carrie Dillard, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8657.