Powering up: NAU teams with Latin American universities on global energy initiative

Allen holding her winning proposal

Oct. 7, 2019

Billions of people throughout the world rely on energy to power their daily lives. But behind the simple flip of a switch, there is a complex system of science, people and policy that keeps energy flowing. In an increasingly energy-driven world, there is a growing need for industry leaders who can deal with energy demands efficiently, intelligently and responsibly. This fall, Northern Arizona University is hosting Leaders United for Positive Energy (LUPE), a program that arms students with knowledge of ethical science and social responsibility in the energy sector—helping shape tomorrow’s leaders.

From Oct. 16-23, students and educators from mining communities in Latin America and Arizona will learn together in a seven-day program at NAU’s Flagstaff Mountain Campus and throughout Arizona. The LUPE program examines the science, policy, social and industry processes behind the energy sector and emphasizes building partnerships to tackle this global issue. The program is designed to allow students to look at the mining and energy process from the time a resource comes out of the ground to the time it is being used in their homes, running electricity and powering utilities.

“It’s important for students to be aware of consumption at the community, state, national and global level,” said Kristin Allen, program manager of Latin American Initiatives in the Center for International Education (CIE). “LUPE will, even if on a small scale, help students understand the impact.”

Allen sits at LUPE’s helm along with Melissa Armstrong, CIE’s associate director and director of interdisciplinary programs. Together, the two wrote and submitted a proposal to the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, an initiative built through Partners of the Americas, the U.S. State Department and NAFSA, an association of international educators. The LUPE proposal was one of 11 winning proposal teams; the grant will allow NAU to bring the program cohort to Flagstaff, host them on campus and provide access to local learning opportunities.

“It has been my passion to help show students that the world is so much bigger than what lies immediately in front of them,” Allen said. “Being able to work here at CIE and to open up different kinds of opportunities—especially opportunities that we get to create—is really exciting.”

The seed was planted last summer, when Allen and School of Earth and Sustainability professor Michael Ort traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to witness the 2018 Partners of the Americas Innovation Fund Announcement. The pair learned of Argentina’s need for a skilled labor force in mining, and Allen saw an opportunity to pursue partners who could collaborate on a multinational program to teach students about various aspects of the energy sector.  

Acting as the connective thread, Allen and Armstrong brought together a number of institutions already partnered with NAU on other projects including the National University of Tucumán (UNT) and The Austral Center for Scientific Investigation (CADIC) in Ushuaia, Argentina. While in Argentina, Allen also visited The National University of Tierra del Fuego (UNTDF), which sits in close proximity to CADIC and is academically connected. With knowledge of NAU’s connection to Sonora, Mexico, through its existing partnership with the Technological University of Hermosillo (UTH), skilled specifically in mining, the National University of Tucuman (UNT) expressed interest in seeking a connection with UTH. The addition of UTH rounded out engaging representation from three countries of the Americas–Argentina, Mexico and the United States—to focus on global energy issues that transcend borders.

“We were trying to figure out how we could possibly connect all these dots, how we could bring all of these partners in on one project and we thought, what if we could bring everyone together to one place where we would all learn from each another about our geology, regional landscape, local communities and national issues?”

With five institutions on board, Allen, Armstrong and Ort continued collaborating with partners to design the program curriculum. Throughout the four segments, students will learn in English and Spanish from professors of each institution as well as the physical and cultural backdrop of northern Arizona. Students in areas of environmental science, environmental engineering, biology, renewable energies and industrial processes and mining from NAU, Argentina and Mexico will together explore sustainable practices for the future of the energy sector.

“The primary goal is to get the students and professors thinking about the whole picture related to energy supplies,” Ort said. “This includes the geology and how the resources are formed, but also the mining and its environmental and societal effects, as well as the possibilities to have more societal benefits of the resource exploitation beyond just the paychecks. Each of the three countries has a different sociopolitical context, and it will be good to share ideas from each place.”

The students will work in “multi-locational” teams comprised of representatives from different institutions. Teams will be assigned and meet virtually prior to the cohort’s arrival at NAU and will work as a group throughout the LUPE program. They will attend faculty-led workshops, lectures and seminars on policy issues and tackle assignments that encourage collaboration and discourse on how each region handles energy policy and what best practices might be applied cross-nationally.

Kicking things off in the science segment, Ort and UNTDF professor Monica Escayola will provide content on geology that produces a number of different energy sources and the effects that mining has on the environment. In the policy segment, School of Earth and Sustainability professor Erik Nielsen will discuss environmental policy and the political contexts that impact the mining industry in the Americas.

To explore issues of social justice, students will spend the third segment traveling to the Navajo Nation to discuss taking care of and protecting the land belonging to each country as well as the land of Indigenous peoples in the area. The cohort will interact with and share information about their home countries with K-16 students in the Navajo Nation. They also plan to meet with Navajo Nation councilmembers to participate in thoughtful discussion on alternative energy solutions for local communities. During this segment, UNT professor Roberto Lencina and UTH professor Gladys Reyes Maldonado will lead discussions on the impact mining has on local communities from the time of exploration to closure.

Rounding out the week is real-world experience in the industry segment. Students will travel to Phoenix for visits that include presentations and sit-downs with leaders in the energy sector to network, build industry connections and acquire a new perspective on how private-public partnerships function. 

“After everything we will have seen, from the science to policy to social justice, we’ll then take the conversation to the corporations,” Allen said. “Students will learn about industry best practices and corporate social responsibility. They also will think about what kind of questions we should pose to industry and government leaders in terms of how we can do things better or what already is being done that should continue or be used as an example.”

One of LUPE’s tangible results will be Letters for Positive Energy. In their multi-locational teams, students will draft letters with thoughtful and impactful suggestions to policymakers in each of their countries. The idea is that students will take the knowledge they learned from the program and translate it into action for positive change in the energy sector.

The interdisciplinary nature of the program speaks to Allen and Armstrong’s belief in the power of cooperation and communication. Allen said that in addition to arming students with knowledge of the energy sector that they can take back to their communities, the program aims to create a larger partner network within the Americas to help facilitate and be a part of projects like LUPE that mobilize students and faculty toward positive global solutions.  

“There are a lot of different layers involved, but what it comes down to is that’s how world problems need to be looked at: through different layers, through different lenses,” Allen said.

Featured image, from left: Allen holding the winning proposal; Kimberly Breier, assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the U.S. Dept. of State; Sergio Espinosa Delgado, Director General of International Exchanges and Affairs in the Sonoran Department of Education and Culture

Cheyenne Jarrette