By Rashda Khan
While many people dream of seeing the world one day, a group of UH Cullen College of Engineering students recently returned from Brazil as part of the first engineering faculty-led study abroad experience through the Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies (PROMES).
The students’ learning adventure included leaping off a cliff to go hang-gliding, visiting the famous Museu Afro Brasil as well as a favela (a Brazilian shanty town), learning to speak Portuguese and presenting their research and creative solutions inspired by the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges to the faculty and students of the University of Sao Paulo among other things.
The NAE’s 14 “Grand Challenges,” put together by a committee of global experts, are those that impact the world and need to be addressed. These include: making solar energy economical; providing energy from fusion; developing carbon sequestration methods; managing the nitrogen cycle; providing clean water; restoring and improving urban infrastructure; advancing health informatics; engineering better medicines; reverse-engineering the brain; preventing nuclear terror; securing cyberspace; enhancing virtual reality; advancing personalized learning; and engineering the tools of scientific discovery.
The aim of the PROMES study abroad trip was for students to "understand the Grand Challenges that Brazil faces in the context of Brazilian culture, technological advances, economy, workforce and its K-12 population," said Jerrod Henderson, director of PROMES, who led the group of 24 students on the trip.
He wanted the students to see real-world situations and come up with solutions, as well as take advantage of the cultural opportunities offered by the trip.
“It was unique being immersed in another country and seeing how our work can impact the world,” said Emilio Ames, a mechanical engineering junior at the Cullen College, who has always dreamed of traveling abroad and jumped on the opportunity. He challenged himself to speak a little more Portuguese each day he spent exploring Brazil.
“We visited some amazing laboratories that opened my mind to all the possibilities to take my skills international,” Ames said. “I hope I can do some work outside of the U.S. one day.”
Stephanie Fose, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, shared her favorite experience from the Brazil trip: “Spending the afternoon on the Copacabana beach in Rio as a group, surrounded by the ocean with a view of the mountains and the Copacabana strip, and then going to dinner at a churrascaria. This was after visiting a laboratory focused on ocean engineering.”
Fose said the trip was a chance to grow both her academic and cultural knowledge and be a global citizen.
“Given the opportunity, I would one-hundred percent participate in it all over again,” she added.
Henderson is already working on the next PROMES study abroad trip. He recently received a $20,000 Access Grant from the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) for a faculty-led program to Ghana and plans to go next year with a group of 20 students.
The PROMES program was selected by CIEE for “its innovative focus on the role engineering will play in solving global challenges like access to clean water and healthcare, renewable energy, and more” in the context of a developing nation.
Study abroad opportunities are not only fun and educational, but also invaluable “life-changing experiences,” Henderson said.
“There is significant research linking increased student success and retention to students who have experiences such as learning abroad and undergraduate research,” he said. “I want to help provide as many opportunities to our students as possible. In addition, engineering is a global industry. I think experiences like these will give our students a competitive edge.”
PROMES was established at the University of Houston in 1974 for the recruitment, retention and academic development of Hispanic, African American and Native American students in the Cullen College of Engineering. Today PROMES is open to all students in the college, and its mission is to provide a positive learning environment that supports the needs of undergraduate students.
“I am excited to see faculty incorporating initiatives from the Office of the Provost, such as the Global Citizens Credential, into their own programs,” said Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Last year, PROMES won the Regent’s Academic Excellence Award for uniting academic support with a sense of community for these students. It is heartening to see the progress they have made over the last year.”