Energy From Empathy

A sponsored child in Ethiopia inspires a ninth-grader’s award-winning invention.
Hannah Herbst, a teenage inventor in Boca Raton, Fla.

As ninth-grader Hannah Herbst exchanged letters with Ruth, her family’s sponsored child in Ethiopia, she became more aware of Ruth’s stark living conditions. In one of her letters, Ruth described her house as made of sticks, hay and a dirt floor. There was no electricity, no water and no sewage control.

This struck Hannah, 15.

“If I close my eyes, there are still lights on around me. There is no time that I don’t have electricity,” she says. “I was thinking about Ruth’s situation for a week.”

Not long after receiving a letter from Ruth, Hannah and her family went boating through the Boca Raton Inlet. The tide jerked the boat side to side, and an idea came to Hannah.

“Why not create a device to harness this energy?” the teen says she wondered.

Hannah had the knowledge to act on her idea because of her background in science and engineering. In summer 2013 her parents encouraged her to attend a one-week engineering and technology camp at Florida Atlantic University.

“I got to the camp not wanting to be there because I was the only girl,” Hannah says. “As a girl I wasn’t always encouraged to pursue science. I went mostly because [my parents] made me. But after a couple days, I realized that I was capable of making things move and work and function.”

She joined Science Olympiad at her high school that fall and started participating in tournaments and events that could award and showcase her work.

More than 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, and 2.6 billion people lack clean cooking facilities. More than 95 percent of these people are either in Sub-Saharan Africa or developing areas of Asia.
— International Energy Agency

Equipped with the skills she’d gained through the camp and Science Olympiad — plus the desire to care for the poor that her parents had impressed upon her and her 12-year-old brother, Max — Hannah was able to turn her idea on the boat into a practical machine. She won top prize of $25,000 at the 2015 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her invention that was inspired by Ruth — a renewable-energy device that converts kinetic movement, or current energy as a result of tidal flux, into an electricity source.

The prototype uses a propeller made with a 3-D printer and is connected by a pulley to a hydroelectric generator. As waves move the propeller, the generator turns that activity into usable electricity.

Watch Now
Watch Hannah's entry video:  Hannah's Ocean Energy Probe aims to provide a stable power source and fresh water to developing countries by using untapped currents.

Though she’s still refining the device with the help of a 3M scientist and mentor, Hannah hopes to help people like Ruth who still lack access to electricity and other modern energy sources. The World Bank estimates that there are 1.1 billion people living in energy poverty. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of 10 people are affected. Their lack of access to electricity dramatically undermines their health, limits their educational opportunities and economic development, and traps them in extreme poverty.

“These stats really helped me develop my project even more,” Hannah says. “I realized I had to make my device practical and user-friendly for those who have never had access to electricity before.”

Hannah explains how her invention works before a panel of judges.
Hannah and her 3M mentor, Jeffery
“I realized I had to make my device practical and user-friendly for those who have never had access to electricity before.”
— Hannah Herbst

Hannah donated $3,000 of her 3M reward to her family’s two sponsored children, Ruth and Daniel, and to Compassion’s Christmas Gift Fund — an easy decision, she says.

What’s not so easy, Hannah admits, is how to explain her invention to 9-year-old Ruth.

“I just got a letter from her the other day, and I am planning on telling her in the letter I am writing now,” says Hannah. “I’m trying to figure out how to say it. I hope she’s excited.” ▪

Hannah’s device was impressive enough to score her a spot at the White House Science Fair on April 13, 2016. She joined about 100 U.S. students whose inventions were selected for the fair at the White House. President Barack Obama personally tested out Hannah’s prototype as he visited the exhibits of the young innovators.Also, Hannah received a letter from Ruth and a letter from Compassion’s Ethiopia staff updating her about how her donation was spent: Ruth and her family received medical care and bought clothes, shoes, blankets and several supplies for their home.
More from this Issue

February 2016

In this issue, learn how Compassion's program helps heal children’s bodies, minds and souls.

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Energy From Empathy

A sponsored child in Ethiopia inspires a ninth-grader’s award-winning invention.

From the President: Evidence at Work

Special medical interventions provide dramatic examples of how God is working through Compassion.

Head of the House

A sponsor’s support becomes indispensible for a Rwandan boy whose father is in prison.

A Just Cause

Compassion joins forces with International Justice Mission to stand up for two abused girls in Thailand.