WUSTL students return from International Experience in China and Hong Kong

Annual study abroad experience heads to Brazil next year

Bethany Klemetsrud tests a solar cell at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Klemetsrud, a student at the University of Minnesota, was a participant in the 2011 International Experience in Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, tests a solar cell at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Klemetrud participated through a National Science Foundation program and was a student while at WUSTL of John Fortner, PhD, assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering.

In the 19th century, it was the World Tour, an occasion to behave badly on another nation’s soil.

In the 20th century, it was the year abroad, during which students did elsewhere pretty much what they had been doing at home.

But in the 21st century — at least at Washington University in St. Louis — it is the International Experience, a heady mix of energy technology, environmental policy and globalization that introduces students to the tough challenges facing the world they will soon inherit.

The International Experience in Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering allows undergraduates to study energy science at top universities in another country. Each year’s class has a theme based on the interests of the coordinating faculty members, says Ruth Chen, PhD, professor of practice in chemical engineering, who directs the International Experience.

This year, the program, which took place this past summer, was led by Chen and Cynthia Lo, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering.

The goal of the International Experience is to extend to undergraduates some of the benefits of WUSTL’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy, an innovative program that brings students from overseas universities to St. Louis for doctoral or professional degree programs.

Each year, the students visit different members of the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership (MAGEEP), a consortium of 28 universities and corporate partners working together in energy, environmental and sustainability research and education.

This trip included visits to five member universities: Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology of the Chinese Academy of Science, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong University, and City University of Hong Kong.

In addition to the 14 WUSTL undergraduates who participated in the program, there were 10 students from other universities who received National Science Foundaton (NSF) funding to work in research programs at WUSTL for the summer. They participated in the International Experience as part of the NSF’s program Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Venkat Subramanian, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, recruited 10 NSF-REU students to the group.

This year, the group went to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong metropolitan area to learn about solar energy, biofuels, wind energy, air pollution and health, green building codes, and green energy practices in the financial sector.

Shenzhen is a major city in southern China that lies just north of Hong Kong. China’s first Special Economic Zone, it was a small village in the early 1970s and is now one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Hong Kong is one of two special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China (the other is Macau). As one of the most densely populated areas in the world, it is also the world’s most vertical city.

Omnipresent and compelling motivation for environmental engineering: air quality at Shenzhen, China, one of the cities the students visited.

This metropolitan area is a microcosm of the promises and problems of globalization. Awareness of environmental problems is growing in Hong Kong in particular, where pollution is aggravated by geography and the built environment.

Hong Kong is exploring wind farms, third-generation solar cells and biomass as alternatives to traditional energy sources. Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of the city’s smog comes from other parts of the Pearl River Delta, including Shenzhen.

Part of the International Experience is immersion in the host culture. Here, WUSTL students and students from Chinese University of Hong Kong practice their chopstick skills by trying to pick up green marbles.

In many ways, Hong Kong is much further along than the United States, Chen says. “Environmental sustainability and a focus on alternative energy are built into the university curriculum,” she says, “because China’s reliance on coal has become a health issue and a quality of life issue.”

She was deeply impressed by the insistence and urgency with which professors encouraged students to tackle environmental problems. The message was driven home every time students stepped outside and their eyes began to sting, she says.

This was the fourth year for the International Experience.

In the inaugural year, 2008, students traveled to Beijing to study air-quality science just as the Chinese government was trying to bring down pollution levels for the 2008 Olympic Games. In 2009, they traveled to Seoul, South Korea, to learn about nanotechnology, and in 2010 they went to Mumbai, India, to learn about the environmental challenges in a country where wood, dung and agricultural waste are still used for heating and cooking. In 2012, program participants will study in Brazil.

The class isn’t the standard semester abroad. The students take pre-program seminars in the spring to bring them up to speed on the technology theme and to introduce them to the language and culture of the host country. During the summer trip, they alternate lectures with tours.

Students visit the He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen. Most of the art in the room was hidden from the Chinese government from the 1940s through the 1980s at considerable risk to the owners. The calligraphy on the far wall is an enlargement of an undated letter Mao Zhedong wrote to a friend.

This year, students toured Dupont Apollo in Shenzhen, which makes windows with thin-film photovoltaic cells embedded in the glass, and visited China Light and Power, whose sheer scale, Chen says, gave you an impression of the environmental difficulties the region faces.

They were addressed by a Merrill Lynch executive, WUSTL alumnus Albert Ip, on Hong Kong’s role as an international finance center and visited the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp., the biggest bank in Hong Kong, where they learned about efforts to reduce energy costs by managing water use and cultivating rooftop gardens.

Some students stay on to complete internships at local universities or businesses. This year, there were five internships: three at Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, working on second-generation solar cells; one with Dupont Apollo, working on photovoltaic windows; and one at Emerson Network Power in Hong Kong.

Karen Mok, a WUSTL junior majoring in environmental studies reacts to the voltage difference between palm prints made of two different materials at ElectriCity, the visitors’ center at Castle Peak Power Station, the largest coal-fired power station in Hong Kong, constructed in the 1980s to meet high growth in Hong Kong’s electricity demand. Standing next to her is Andrew Spitz, a WUSTL junior majoring in energy, environmental and chemical engineering.

During the trip, the students summarize what they have learned in presentations for the students and faculty of one of their host universities. “We have outstanding students and they were able to deliver good presentations to their local hosts,” says Chen, with the relief every teacher feels when students perform well under pressure.

This fall, the students will produce a joint video, prepare individual Power Point presentations and write a 30-page research paper or participate in a project to teach middle-school students how to make solar cells.

But it’s not all work. This year, the students visited Splendid China Folk Village, a theme park in Shenzhen, the Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island, Hong Kong Night Lights and a dragon boat festival.

Next year, when the International Experience goes to Brazil the theme will be biofuels, Chen says. “The following year we are thinking of going to Queensland, Australia, to study environmental engineering applications and watch clean coal technology demonstrations,” she says.

Interested students can download an application at eece.wustl.edu/undergraduateprograms/Pages/Brazil.aspx.

For more information about the program, email Ruth Chen at ruth.chen@wustl.edu.

“Clean energy, the environment and globalization are such important issues for this university,” Chen says, “and these trips combine all three issues. The students who have had this international experience come home better equipped to steer our society in a direction that will be beneficial to us all.”