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Learn how School of Engineering students tackle energy problems in China

October 03, 2017

From left to right: Sophia Pink, Anna von Wendorff, Tanvi Gambhir, Tita Kanjanapas, and Karen Wang

Photos: courtesy Shan Shui Conservation Center, Karen Wang, Sophia Pink, Anna von Wendorff

You’re in a remote mountain area relying on a hydropower station to provide energy, but there isn’t enough water to activate the system. You have no power, no light and can’t do the simplest things, like boil water. What do you do? This is the challenge that faced staff at the Shan Shui Conservation Center, a giant panda habitat, in northern China. A partnership with Global Engineering Programs (GEP) at the School of Engineering (SOE) helped them find a solution.

The Office of International Affairs (OIA) met with Pamela Hinds, professor of management science and engineering and faculty director of GEP, and Ming Luo, GEP’s program manager to learn how GEP is contributing to solving some of the world’s problems while simultaneously providing engineering students with valuable international experiences.

Q: How did this opportunity with Shan Shui Conservation Center come about and how was the partnership developed?

PH: In partnership with the OIA, we wanted to provide more opportunities for undergraduate students in China. We also felt that we could also fill a gap by creating more service learning opportunities for our students.  We were fortunate to be able to work with the Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) to identify Shan Shui as a potential partner.

ML: The proximity to faculty at Peking University is equally valuable. Prof. Xu Jintao, the associate dean of National School of Development at Peking University and advisory board member of Shan Shui bridged the connections between Shan Shui and SCPKU, and ultimately with us at GEP.

Shan Shui Conservation Center is a world-renowned Chinese NGO with multiple locations around the country working to preserve the natural ecological environment and the animals that inhabit them. For this particular project, we focused on an energy improvement project at the Baixiongping Conservation Station in Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve in northern Sichuan Province.

Tanvi Gambhir measuring solar panel (Photo: courtesy of Karen Wang)

Q: How was it decided what activities the students would engage in?

PH: A team consisting of staff from SCPKU, GEP and Shan Shui worked together to identify engineering specific activities that would benefit Shan Shui while simultaneously leveraging the students’ engineering skills to advance their education and careers. Typically, in-country partners might propose something like a new website or a new database, but we find that our students are excited about activities that are more complex and have higher-level engineering requirements. Discussions went back and forth to decide what Shan Shui needed and what GEP wanted for its students.

ML: The Baixiongping hydropower station provides energy to the nature reserve inconsistently throughout the year. In the summer, excess runoff from mountain snowmelt causes the motor to burn out and in the winter, too little water doesn’t activate the the system to run. This inefficiency causes work to cease for about 3-4 months in the winter and periodically in the summer since staff can’t work without power.

It was decided that the students would work on adding a back-up generator with an appropriate transformer and batteries that would be enabled by a “smart switch” in the event that the main transformer stopped functioning.

Q: Did everything go according to plan?

PH: During one discussion prior to the students arriving in China, the idea of using solar power came up. At this point, we engaged the students in a discussion of the pros and cons with the NGO. Everyone did some research and the team decided that adding solar power as an alternative energy source was more green and would have less impact on the environment than adding an additional generator.

ML: Problem solving and coming up with a hybrid solution provided many learning opportunities for the students. They learned how to incorporate solar panels into an existing power source, install solar panels, determine the site and angle of installation for maximum sun exposure, store energy in the battery and much more.

Q: How did the outcome impact the NGO and the students?

PH: For the nature reserve, the solar panels provide a more stable power source so that staff can work consistently through the summer and winter months. Their work of monitoring the animals and the habitat can now be more consistent through the year. The students’ experience was also meaningful because they could use their skills to solve a real world problem.

“I think one of the most memorable aspects of the experience was coming away with a certain amount of humility with regards to how difficult and challenging it is to maintain a conservation station in the remote mountains.” - Karen Wang, coterm student in computer science

Q. What are some of the challenges of developing a service-learning opportunity?

PH: First of all, you can’t go it alone. We’ve found that it is best to work with a reliable in-country partner who has strong local relationships to make sure that what we are doing adds value.  An in-country partner can also help with the on the ground logistics such as accommodations and transportation. Secondly, to develop any meaningful service learning opportunity, 1 year is not enough. Working in a single location for about 3 years provides continuity as well as an opportunity to show impact.

ML: From the perspective of the NGO, they often think these are great experiences for students to observe real world problems but are unsure as to whether students can make a valuable contribution. In the beginning, Shan Shui was skeptical as to what our students could do in such a limited amount of time in the field. At the end of the project, they were quite impressed with how the students quickly rolled up their sleeves and jumped into the muddy waters, literally!

Q: Why does the School of Engineering have its own global programs?

PH: Engineering students often want overseas experiences that give them a chance to apply the engineering skills that they are learning, but they also want them to be aligned with their career aspirations. For some engineering students, it can be harder to partake in other global opportunities on campus. Being gone during the academic year can be difficult because students have to complete sequences of prerequisites.  Summer can also be difficult because summer internships provide valuable work experience, offset the cost of education and lay the groundwork for future jobs. GEP develops opportunities that address these issues. Our service learning and study tour opportunities typically take place during the latter portion of the summer so that students can still engage in a summer internship.

One of the other reasons that SOE offers global programs is that many of the most challenging engineering problems are global problems. While you might be able to make headway on certain issues, such as alternative energy, on the local level, this is ultimately a global problem and solutions require a global perspective. This is the perspective that we provide our students by providing a first-hand, immersive experience.

Global Engineering Programs and other off-campus opportunities to engage and change the world are available to view on solo.stanford.edu.

Are you a faculty member interested in bringing a group of students abroad to be closer to your research? Contact OIA and we'll help you get started.