Global Program Engineers Stronger Communities Across Borders

Last Updated on July 31, 2015 at 11:08 am

Originally published July 31, 2015

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

There and Back Again: With a gentle nod to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, this is the 12th article in an occasional series covering the off-campus experiences of UTEP students with study abroad, internships and externships, because what students learn outside the classroom is as important as what they learn inside the classroom.

In the Guadalupe Valley, just northeast of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, 25 students from The University of Texas at El Paso and the Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior (CETYS University) spent two weeks in June proposing sustainable solutions that would benefit the wine industry and the Guadalupe Valley as a whole.

Made possible by the study abroad program, “Engineering Together Sustainable Communities,” between UTEP and CETYS University in Ensenada, faculty and students combined their skills and expertise to address some of the most pressing sustainability challenges in the Guadalupe Valley, located in the heart of Mexico’s wine-growing region.

UTEP hosted a welcome reception for faculty and engineering students from CETYS University on June 30. Faculty and students from UTEP and CETYS participated in the “Engineering Together Sustainable Communities,” study abroad program in Ensenada, Mexico. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

UTEP hosted a welcome reception for faculty and engineering students from CETYS University on June 30. Faculty and students from UTEP and CETYS participated in the “Engineering Together Sustainable Communities,” study abroad program in Ensenada, Mexico. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“This is a fantastic opportunity for you to really engage in what engineering is all about,” said Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering, during a welcome reception at UTEP for faculty and students from CETYS on June 30. “There are a lot of reasons why this program is really important. One of the main grand challenges that the world is facing right now is access to clean water. The other is affordable energy. This is really a right of people around the world. In the next century it’s going to drive the quality of life.”

The “Engineering Together Sustainable Communities” program began last year with funding from the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” initiative. Launched by President Barack Obama, the initiative aims to create 100,000 student exchanges annually between the United States and Latin American countries.

Since last summer, students from UTEP and CETYS have collaborated on sustainable community development projects. The goal was to design and implement sustainable engineering solutions in five different areas: Sustainable Hydraulic Development In the Guadalupe Valley; Sustainable Water Retention and Conservation Techniques at the Guadalupe Valley Vineyards; Sustainable Practices In the Kumiai Community of San Antonio Necua; Feasibility Analysis of Renewable Energies Implementation in the Guadalupe Valley and Carbon Footprint Analysis; and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energies for the Wine Production Processes in the Guadalupe Valley.

Their efforts culminated in a trip to the Guadalupe Valley June 15-25 where the students came face-to-face for the first time to implement their projects.

Nancy Aguirre, a doctoral student in the civil engineering program at UTEP, led the team that proposed adding zeolite – a mineral that absorbs and releases water – into the soil to help retain and conserve water in the vineyards. Students conducted experiments at the Clos de Tres Cantos vineyard and winery. Preliminary results indicated that zeolite would help reduce the percent of water evaporation in the soil and also reduce water usage in the vineyard.

“Both owners were extremely interested when we proposed to mix zeolite into the soil to help absorb water into the ground and by doing so reducing the percent of evaporation,” Aguirre explained. “By allowing us to perform our experiments, we were able to prove that zeolite is an effective sustainable technique, since it’s a natural chemical, to reduce the usage of water in the region.”

The three-week study abroad course was taught by faculty from UTEP and CETYS, including Heidi Taboada, Ph.D., and Jose Espiritu, Ph.D., associate professors of industrial, manufacturing and systems engineering at UTEP.

“Our students’ technical abilities demonstrated there is a strong foundation in their field of study, their professionalism and their ability to connect with the people in the Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) demonstrated that our students have gained so much by providing a strong acuity with practical implementation,” ”, said Taboada, program director and principal investigator of the project.

For Cesar Esteban Tapia, a junior in mechanical engineering, getting to know the Kumiai community of San Antonio Necua was a transformative experience. The Kumiai community is one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Baja California.

Tapia and his teammates were tasked with developing sustainable practices to promote and preserve the Kumiai culture, while combining technological, cultural and economic aspects.

“It’s going to help me become an engineer without borders,” Tapia said, referring to his study abroad experience. “You become conscious of the different problems in the world, so that after the preparation we get in school and in life, we can make a change.”

After spending two weeks in Ensenada working on their projects, visiting wineries and going to the beach, students and faculty from both universities traveled to UTEP for the last week of the program. The teams finalized their projects and presented their results at the closing ceremony July 2.

Carlos Ferregut, Ph.D., director of UTEP’s Global Programs Office, said the “Engineering Together Sustainable Communities” program provided students a unique opportunity to learn the principles of sustainable engineering and also experience what it is like to be part of a binational and multidisciplinary team.

“It makes students realize the importance of being flexible and tolerant when working in an international setting and within a multinational team,” Ferregut said. “The life of the students that participate in our study abroad programs is enriched by their exposure to the practice of engineering in other countries and by the acculturation they received during their stay abroad.”

According to Consul General of Mexico in El Paso, Jacob Prado, 14,000 Mexican students were enrolled in U.S. universities in 2013. In 2014, that number doubled to 28,000.

The Mexican government’s program, “Proyecta 100,000,” which is the country’s version of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, aims to have 100,000 Mexican students study in the U.S. by 2018.

Prado noted that UTEP has one of the highest concentrations of Mexican nationals enrolled at a U.S. university. He lauded UTEP’s study abroad efforts for allowing educational opportunities, such as student exchange programs, to transcend borders.

“Today we have an exceptional moment where our two countries are building a future full of prosperity,” Prado said to welcome the CETYS students and faculty UTEP. “I think UTEP’s efforts are a great example of that future.”

Watch this video to see the collaboration between engineering students from UTEP and CETYS in Ensenada.

Editor’s note: If you have a story or an experience you think would fit this series, please email news@utep.edu with the subject line: There and Back Again.

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