UTEP Engineering Students Create Sustainable Solutions for Mexico's Guadalupe Valley

Aisha Azimi, Higher Education Communications Intern

Edited by Mary Henkin

Engineering is not just about doing something you like and profiting from that, it’s about changing people's lives for the better,” a University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) student wrote in their anonymous post-study abroad reflection after returning from Ensenada, Mexico. “This program showed me that the projects an engineer works on really affect people. We are no longer just designing a piping system; we are helping people get water without a long walk. We are helping them to survive.”

UTEP‘s Engineering Together Sustainable Communities study abroad program took 17 students on a service-based trip to Ensenada where they applied their knowledge to solve agricultural issues in the community. UTEP was one of eight higher education institutions chosen as a winner in a 100,000 Strong in the Americas grant competition promoting study abroad in engineering, physics, geology and geophysics, sponsored by ExxonMobil.

The 17 students worked on one of five sustainable development projects:

  1. Sustainable Hydraulic Development In the Guadalupe Valley
  2. Sustainable Water Retention and Conservation Techniques at the Guadalupe Valley Vineyards
  3. Sustainable Practices in the Kumiai Community of San Antonio Necua
  4. Feasibility Analysis of Renewable Energies Implementation in the Guadalupe Valley and Carbon Footprint Analysis
  5. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies for the Wine Production Processes in the Guadalupe Valley.

The Sustainable Water Retention and Conservation Techniques project (project 2) took place at the center of Mexico’s wine producing region. Students brainstormed and implemented energy solutions that would benefit the wine industry and Guadalupe Valley as a whole.

The team was led by Nancy Aguirre, a doctoral student in the civil engineering program at UTEP. Her group added the mineral zeolite into the soil to help conserve water in the vineyards. Acting like a sponge, zeolite absorbs and releases water, which in theory minimizes evaporation and water waste.

The miracle mineral proved its capabilities when tests were conducted at the Clos de Tres Cantos vineyard and winery. Results showed zeolite would in fact reduce water evaporation in the soil and water usage in the vineyard. “This experience allowed me to get a glimpse at a 'real world' type of environment. I believe that if civil engineers were to incorporate sustainability practices during the design and construction of engineering projects, we would have the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve quality of life without degrading the quantity, quality or availability of natural, economic, and social resources,” one student wrote in their anonymous reflection.  

Months before, Aguirre’s team discovery might not have become a reality. Constant travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State reported the lingering dangers in Mexico – homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and narcotics trafficking to name a few. These cases, coupled with the staggering 100 U.S. citizen deaths in 2014 alone made universities hesitant to send their students on bilateral exchanges. UTEP, however, saw a need to connect cultures and create an understanding with their neighbors.

The students realized this need as well. “What I learned during this program will be part of me for the rest of my life – the approach method, the speed of work, the communication style with different backgrounds, and the problem solving environment. I highly recommend this program,” another student wrote.

Creating a Study Abroad Program at Your Higher Education Institution

ExxonMobil is currently sponsoring its third 100,000 Strong in the Americas competition, open to higher education institutions in Argentina, Brazil Colombia (SENA centers), Guyana, Mexico, and the United States.

“This is a unique opportunity to expand the educational experience in regions that are strategically important to ExxonMobil as well as strengthen academic disciplines that will drive the energy industry into the future,” ExxonMobil Vice President of International Government Relations Neal Goins said. “The success of this initiative will further economic development in the Americas as well as increase the potential number of qualified candidates who may wish to pursue a career in the industry.”

The competition is open through October 16, 2016. Apply today!