Innovation in Green Tech via Study Abroad

Dario Mitchell, Higher Education

Overworked, over-caffeinated, and with little opportunity to fit elective courses in their schedules, students studying STEM might not seem like a good fit for study abroad programs. As a result of this assumption, STEM students have been historically underrepresented among students who choose to travel abroad. 

((CC BY-SA 2.0) by IAEA)

However, the trend appears to be changing, and in the 2014-15 academic year, they accounted for 24 percent of students studying abroad, surpassing social science majors (17 percent) and business majors (20 percent) for the first time. This reflects the fact that in today’s globalized society, proficiency in (non-programming) secondary languages and inter-cultural competency are increasingly required to address tech challenges across borders.

100,000 Strong in the Americas was founded on the idea that through collaboration, institutions can achieve much more together than they can alone. Research and educational partnerships connect people and organizations across borders, and create opportunity, foster understanding, and solve real-life challenges. 100,000 Strong in the Americas supports innovative, forward-thinking programs whose successful outcomes are the result of contributions from both domestic and international institutions and individuals.

As part of an ExxonMobil-funded 100,000 Strong in the Americas grant, students from University of Texas, El Paso, (UTEP) and the University of Guadalajara (UdeG) competed in an IBM-sponsored Smart Cities Hackathon in Jalisco, Mexico, where a UTEP-UdeG team won first prize for building an app that can detect water leakage in buildings using remote wifi-connected sound sensors. 

(UTEP and UdeG students working on Hackathon projects on UdeG campus)

“Learning from other people and being outside of your comfort zone creates the perfect environment to solve more interesting and challenging problems, especially [when] working with a diverse team. From the experiences I had while participating in this program, I am confident that I will be able to work with new teammates on new topics, even if there is a lot of uncertainty at the beginning,” says Diego Aguirre, a Computer Science PhD student at UTEP.

(Visit to Intel Mexico)

Inter-institutional collaboration not only benefits the universities and students involved, but can also lead to impact at the local level. This was evident in the recent partnership funded by 100,000 Strong in the Americas between the University of Pittsburgh and the Federal University of Paraná (FUP), in which students collaborated to create a mobile app to encourage carpooling as a solution to reducing gas emissions. Unlike most standard U.S. public institutions, FUP operates a decentralized urban institution. Without a strong public transportation system, students who commute to campus face a logistical nightmare trying to get to class. Using a point-based reward system, students and faculty with cars are incentivized to share their ride with others, who are picked up at public points of interest. The points earned from offering rides can then be redeemed for gift cards. The system serves to reduce emissions as well as to conserve limited parking space on campus.

(Group photo Pitt UFPR students Design Expo December 2016)

The partnership between the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay (UWGB), and the Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD) in Santiago, Chile also demonstrates the merits of sharing cross-cultural knowledge to address shared problems. Both universities are located in cities that have long histories of environmental pollution. Wisconsin’s Green Bay, and the Great Lakes in general, have been negatively affected by the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from regional industries, ranging from paper mills to boat motor production, over a period of sixty years. Another issue is phosphorous runoff, which is produced by the heavy use of fertilizer by the area’s agricultural industry. The combined damage from these two pollutants is the primary cause of “dead zones,” areas that lack sufficient oxygen to support aquatic life, in the Green Bay. In a similar case, the Bay of Quintero, near Valparaiso, Chile, has been heavily polluted by runoff from local copper mines and coal plants.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s Green Bay, Quintero has not received any resources for cleanup. In response to this inaction, UDD has become the center of an innovative research program focused on developing crowdsourced strategies that use affordable sensors to monitor environmental conditions. With the aid of a grant from 100,000 Strong in the Americas and the Coca-Cola Foundation, the institutions will be able to embark on a long-term research collaboration focused on developing novel aquatic sensor technology, as well as enable undergraduate students to travel and gain experience in the methods of internationalized research.

((CC BY 2.0) by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region)

Developing the capacity to carry out international programs is often a goal of many institutions, but sometimes, an initial impetus is needed. 100,000 Strong in the Americas seeks to fund a diverse set of projects and assist in breaking the down the barriers that stand in the way of international education and research.

If your institution is looking to build partnerships with other higher education institutions: