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December 8, 2005

New graduate program in sustainable engineering has Brazilian ties

A select group of Pitt graduate students and faculty soon will be brushing up on their Portuguese, all in the name of sustainable engineering.

The University’s latest Brazilian connection comes in the form of a $3.2 million National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) award that will strengthen Pitt’s partnership with the University at Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo and bring more Hispanic students into the field of engineering through partnerships with the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

Administered by the Mascaro Sustainability Institute (MSI) in Pitt’s School of Engineering, the IGERT will advance research into green construction and sustainable water use.

Pitt faculty and students will partner with UNICAMP professors for collaborative research that transcends national boundaries. After completing preparatory course work in the U.S., up to 24 graduate students will have the opportunity for eight-month research rotations in São Paulo. The first students are being recruited now to go to Brazil in 2007.

Sustainability seemed to be a natural focus for the IGERT proposal, said principal investigator Eric Beckman, a chemical engineering professor and co-director of MSI.

The issue is global, with plenty of complex and multidisciplinary problems that lend themselves to long-term study. What’s more, they are a concern to all. Beckman’s proposal noted that given the planet’s finite resources and growing population, it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to design more energy-efficient buildings, use less-wasteful materials and eliminate pollution.

Co-principal investigator Laura Schaefer said: “We’re bringing in a diverse group of students, looking at international problems and getting the chance to make the world a better place.” In addition, the award brings recognition to the University. “The prestige of getting an IGERT is really great. It lets other universities in the U.S. and abroad know that Pitt is active in sustainability,” she said.

An assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Schaefer looks forward to the expanded research opportunities the grant will facilitate. One project she anticipates pursuing is her work in the creation of hybrid fuel cell microturbine distributed power generation systems. The small gas-fired power plants generate perhaps one megawatt of electricity, but are twice as efficient as typical coal-fired plants and small enough to be placed in industrial parks or remote areas.

She also sees opportunity for flexibility. “We have these sort of building blocks, but we are not locked into them,” she said, referring to the program’s two-fold emphasis on green buildings and clean water. “If other avenues of research or technology open up, we can flex to pursue them.”

Beckman said he knew the IGERT proposal had many attractive points. Of 525 pre-proposals submitted to NSF, his was one of three dozen projects selected.

“The NSF sees good research projects all the time,” he said. “For an IGERT, they’re looking for something enhanced.”

Beyond the importance of sustainable design as a subject of study, the program gives students firsthand experience into its global implications through living and conducting research in Brazil.

“A lot of people talk international,” Beckman said. “This was real.”

Among the program’s strengths are its eight-month research rotations, its collaboration with Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) for language and cultural training, the choice of UNICAMP — Beckman calls it “the MIT of South America” — which shares Pitt’s sustainability research interests, and a strong educational assessment plan.

In addition, Beckman saw the proposal as a way to broaden the typically narrow graduate engineering experience. He said the IGERT is drawing interest from a wider variety of students who may want something more than the ordinary pattern of taking qualification exams and then spending three years in the lab.

“We’re reaching different people for whom engineering would have been a bore,” he said, noting that some who planned graduate work in law or public policy, for example, might find the program attractive. “We’re getting different people looking at the program,” he said.

The program also aims to increase ethnic diversity among Pitt engineering students. The partnerships with the universities at El Paso and Mayaguez will allow students from those two institutions to move into the IGERT program to pursue Ph.D. studies at Pitt in their final semester of master’s study at their home schools.

During the application process, Beckman knew the IGERT proposal was solid, but he also was aware that competition was fierce. “The biggest surprise is that we got it on our first shot,” he said, adding that resubmission plans already were in progress when he got the NSF approval earlier this year.

The speedy approval has prompted Pitt faculty members to spring into action to finalize program details. Beckman recently returned from Brazil, where he and a half-dozen Pitt colleagues visited with UNICAMP faculty to get to know one another and identify common research interests.

Curriculum development is under way. Engineering professor Kim Needy is working with CLAS to develop an upper-level intensive Portuguese course that will help students converse and acquire a vocabulary of technical terms, and a seminar that will familiarize them with Brazilian culture — skills they will need during their extended stay in South America.

New engineering courses also are being developed. A required multidisciplinary introductory course in sustainable engineering should be available next fall.

“It’s not going to be the traditional class where it’s lecture based and you take a test,” Needy said. The team-taught course will recognize the broad nature of the issues involved in sustainability and participants’ varied interests and areas of expertise.

In addition to examining sustainable water and green construction life cycle analysis, the course will draw on a wide range of experts to present information on environmental cost issues, regulatory frameworks in the U.S. and abroad; legal, social and international implications of non-sustainable design; environmental management, and responsible conduct of research.

Students will make their research proposals in a sustainability capstone definition course at Pitt, followed by a sustainability capstone realization course in Brazil, where they will carry out that research, Needy said.

To facilitate collaborative research, faculty members will travel between Pittsburgh and São Paulo several times a year. Between visits, teleconferencing will figure prominently in the international effort.

Beckman said he hopes to establish a teleconference center in the School of Engineering early next year.

Although this IGERT is the University’s first, it joins other Pitt programs with Brazilian ties. Since 2000, Pitt has been part of the São Paulo/Pittsburgh Consortium on Building Sustainable Urban Environments.

With Carnegie Mellon University, UNICAMP and other universities in São Paulo, the consortium promotes cooperation among government, business and educational institutions to encourage environmentally sensitive economic development.

And, the University’s Katz Graduate School of Business offers an International Executive M.B.A. program in which students can receive a Pitt M.B.A. while studying in São Paulo.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 8

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