As the nation struggles with the dual challenges of weaning itself from fossil fuels and being responsible stewards of the planet, it is increasingly clear that no one discipline, technology or individual can solve these problems alone.
Addressing such complex, and sometimes conflicting, issues will necessarily require innovation and cooperation from engineers of all kinds, as well as policy makers, economists, geologists, biologists and sociologists – to name a few. It is not always easy to get experts from all these different fields to come together to voice their ideas or learn new approaches.
However, this may be changing.
A recent example is a yearly national sustainability fellowship comprised of students from widely different backgrounds. In an intense week of interactions with academics, businesspeople, scientists and entrepreneurs, the participating students make connections that could serve them well when they become the ones responsible for ushering in a new era of alternative and renewable energy solutions.
“I tell the students that they are going to be leaders of the energy world in the future, and this is an opportunity to meet your peers, to be challenged by them, and to be motivated to get out and get involved. It’s an opportunity to not just sit there and learn – but to act!”
So explains Lincoln Pratson, associate professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. He and his counterparts from Arizona State University, the University of Michigan and Cornell University, developed a Sustainability Energy Fellowship that draws students from across the country to one of their campuses for one week each summer.
In its second year, faculty members from Nicholas and the Pratt School of Engineering organized the latest gathering, which attracted more than 40 undergraduate, masters and graduate students to campus during the beautiful last week of May. As Pratson points out, this a true fellowship, with sponsorships covering students’ travel and housing expenses.
“One thing that separates our fellowship program from all others is that it brings together the best and brightest students from across the country and those who are passionate about energy and sustainability,” Pratson said. “They are eager to learn what others think and what they have experienced.”
Of the attendees, six were students from Pratt, as well as one student from the Fuqua School of Business. Not only did the group attend lectures and discussions on campus, they made field trips to such area sites as Duke’s Smart Home, the nuclear reactor and solar center at North Carolina State University, Research Triangle Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Cree, Inc.
One Pratt participant Andrew Tutt, a biomedical engineering senior, found that the fellowship and connections he made during the fellowship will help further his ultimate goal of getting involved in the policy-making side of sustainability.
“In order to make many of hard decisions that will need to be made, the politicians need to be well informed,” said Tutt, a Davis, Calif., native. “How much do our lawmakers know? I hope that we will be able to provide them expert opinions and data so that they can make decisions based on fact, and not just political expediency.
Another Pratt student was Patrick Friscia, who graduated this past spring and is working for a construction management firm in San Francisco. The Long Island native, who focused and structural and environmental engineering during his studies at Pratt, found the fellowship an opportune chance to discuss energy awareness issues with other like-minded students in different disciplines.
“I think the awareness of the energy issue is important,” Friscia said. “I hope to get practical economic and entrepreneurship experience. I’m already into the technical aspect of the issue, but I want more experience in the economics of energy production and who the important players are.
“I know there is crunch now given the high price of oil, but on the positive side it raises the awareness of all sorts of sources, such as solar, hydro, or ocean waves,” Friscia continued. “However, still no source is yet as economical as burning coal or other fossil fuels. This is an exciting time – maybe not for the economy as a whole – but as a way of inspiring people to think outside the box.”
Pratson said the fellowship was an intense time, with the students booked solid throughout the day, starting at 8 a.m. each morning and sometimes lasting into the evening.
“This is among the brightest group of students I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” he said. “Just about every speaker basically went over time because they enjoyed the students’ questions and the give-and-take so much. That the students were so passionate and knowledgeable is what made the fellowship so much fun and valuable to everyone involved.”
Among the universities sending students were MIT, Stanford, Columbia, University of California-Berkely, Vanderbilt and Georgetown.
Tutt, who is also majoring in economics and mathematics, plans to pursue his passion when he returns to campus for his final year by leading an effort to convert the lights that illuminate the exterior of the Chapel at night to more energy-efficient LED technology.
“Sustainability will be a part of who I am, not just an academic exercise,” Tutt said.
For information about participating in next year’s fellowship, visit http://www.teachenergy.org/
Seven of the 40 students attending were from Duke. In the front row, wearing Duke t-shirts, are from left, Nicholas Millar, Andrew Tutt and Xin (Tim) Gu. In the second row are Sara Kate Fishback, first on left, and Tom Rose, fourth from left. In the third row are Kyle Bradbury and Patrick Friscia, third and fourth from left, respectively. Lincoln Pratson, Duke faculty advisor, is far right in third row.