Study abroad program offers collaborative sustainability research experiences


By Tim Schley

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Preparing students to meet global challenges like climate change requires more than just teaching them technical skills in the classroom, according to Rachel Brennan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“We must equip the students of today with the fundamental knowledge to understand sustainable development solutions, the creative mindset to investigate and implement them in innovative ways and the leadership training to effectively communicate about and advocate for sustainable development around the world,” Brennan said.

To this end, Brennan and other Penn State researchers coordinated a program to offer international “boots-on-the-ground” training to a yearly cohort of 12 graduate students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The Innovations in Graduate Education (IGE) program, funded by a three-year, $458,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, provides the students with leadership and professional development training before they embark on a one to six-month research internship to collaborate with experts and local communities as they address complex sustainability challenges associated with interconnected water-energy-food (WEF) systems.

“By participating in this program, graduate students will receive hands-on, interdisciplinary training to prepare them for diverse career paths in sustainable development,” said Meng Wang, assistant professor of environmental systems engineering and co-investigator of the project. Other key personnel include Carter Hunt, associate professor of recreation, park and tourism management and of anthropology; Jay Regan, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Julio Urbina, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Kathleen Hill, associate professor of science education.

Students are encouraged to apply to a research site that matches their educational plans and career goals. In 2022, internships emphasizing technological, ecological and social strategies are available in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Students may organize the timing of their internship with project coordinators to occur between June and December. Applications for the program are being accepted through April 1. If selected, students will receive an allowance for round-trip travel and lodging at the international project location. 

According to Brennan, the program aims to diversify the number of scholars trained in sustainable development by placing a significant emphasis on recruiting students from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

“Exposure to authentic research experiences is well known to improve retention and the successful completion of degrees among underrepresented minority students,” Brennan said. “This program not only provides the opportunity to work with real communities facing sustainable development challenges but also provides financial support to enable students to travel and live in other countries before graduation.”

The program also coordinates annual symposia for the returning IGE scholars to discuss their experiences abroad, facilitating a better understanding and appreciation for how research innovation is inherently collaborative and multidisciplinary.

“This program emphasizes the importance of systems-level innovation to provide equitable access to the essential and interrelated human rights of water, energy and food — particularly in a global context — and provides additional opportunities to reflect on the intersections between human health, biodiversity, climate change and environmental justice,” Brennan said. 


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