Solar plane pilots urge ASU engineering grads to embrace pioneering spirit

May 16, 2013

Before being handed their diplomas last week, the newest Arizona State University engineering graduates were told the world needs them to go beyond merely being good engineers and become passionate pioneers.

The plea came from two men in the midst of their own pioneering mission. Solar Impuse Pilots Download Full Image

In a surprise visit to the May 9 convocation ceremony, the pilots attempting to become the first to complete a transcontinental flight in an airplane relying only on solar power addressed the crowd of about 10,000 people.

“We need to invent a better future,” and young engineers need to help lead the way, Bertrand Piccard said to the gathering of nearly all of the 1,123 students receiving degrees this semester from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – plus about 9,000 family members, friends and other guests in attendance.

Piccard was joined on stage by André Borschberg, his fellow pilot on the mission titled Solar Impulse Across America, just days after successfully completing the first leg of the flight from Moffett Federal Field, near San Francisco, to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The two natives of Switzerland said they could not pass up the opportunity to address so many graduates from a major American university “because our mission is not only about an airplane. It is about inspiration,” Borschberg said.

Along their planned route through Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. to New York, they and their team hope to connect with students, teachers and community and government leaders.

They want to use the interest generated by their endeavor to spark more dialogue about the need to pursue innovation in technology and other areas that can promise to provide a growing world better resources to support itself – particularly more energy from sources such as solar power that are renewable, sustainable and less of an environmental detriment.

So far, they are getting a growing amount of positive response, largely through social media, from people encouraging their efforts. The Solar Impulse website recently posted a photo of Piccard and Borschberg posing with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and more than 2,200 people came to Sky Harbor airport to see their airplane.

They considered their visit to ASU to speak to engineering graduates as a meaningful part of their voyage. “Our project involves almost all the different dimensions of engineering, so this is a significant moment,” Piccard said.

Behind the scenes of Solar Impulse is a team of about 90 engineers, technicians, technical advisers, organizers, and communications and media managers. In addition, as many as 80 companies have lent support in various ways.

The pilots pointed out that the project involves the kind of diversity of skills and collaboration among experts in a variety of fields that is exemplified by ASU’s interdisciplinary approach to education and research.

The concept for the Solar Impulse adventure began to emerge about a decade ago and the plane has been in design and building stages throughout the past five years.

The project would never have come to fruition if team members had not overcome obstacles – technical and otherwise – that at times seemed insurmountable. Borschberg told ASU engineering graduates the lesson to take from the team’s perseverance is that “every difficulty is a potential  opportunity” to devise innovative solutions and achieve major advances.

Piccard and Borschberg are not strangers to achievement.

Piccard, a well-known psychiatrist and psychotherapist, is also a world-class aviator and adventurer. He and a partner won a transatlantic hot-air balloon race and later, with another partner, he made the first nonstop balloon flight around the world.

He has earned some of the highest distinctions bestowed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the National Geographic Society and the international Explorers Club.

Borschberg is an engineer who also holds a degree in management science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a pilot in the Swiss air force and has been a successful financial manager, business investor and entrepreneur in technology- and Internet-based industries.

He has been a member of prestigious international groups, including the World Presidents’ Organization, a global association of current and former chief executive officers of major companies.

The two pilots’ flight across the United States is a step toward another accomplishment they plan to pursue two years from now: flying a solar plane around the world.

"The visit from the Solar Impulse team, in the middle of their historic voyage across the U.S., made this a special and memorable convocation for our graduates,” said Paul Johnson, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  

“The message Andre and Bertrand delivered was inspiring, and it resonates with our students because Fulton Engineering is home to world-renowned experts in photovoltaic solar-energy systems and ASU has the largest portfolio of solar-energy installations of any university in the U.S.,” Johnson said. “Plus the culture of ASU and our engineering schools encourages innovation, risk taking, sustainability and pursuing your passions."

Read more about the Solar Impulse Across America mission and see a video of Borschberg and Piccard speaking at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering convocation on the Solar Impulse website.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Students, faculty 'show' sustainability at open house event

May 16, 2013

Assistant professor David Manuel-Navarrete started the semester by giving his students a choice. They could produce a report, or they could produce a video. The video would be a lot more work, he warned them, but the students decided that was what they wanted to do.

Their assignment, then, was to produce a video that incorporated what they’d learned in Manuel-Navarrete’s course, Sustainability Leadership and Social Change. Using ASU as an example, their video demonstrated an organization’s transformation toward sustainability, addressing topics like leadership, barriers and changes to the structure of the organization. Three women and two men pose for the camera. Download Full Image

Manuel-Navarrete and his students presented at the School of Sustainability’s year-end open house and project showcase. The event, which began several years ago as a year-end poster session for students enrolled in the sustainability capstone course, grew to something bigger this year.

Previously, the open house event focused on internship experiences. This year, the event was designed to create new collaborations and highlight a variety of real-world learning opportunities; what the School calls Project-and Problem-Based Learning (PPBL).

Solving complex problems

The School of Sustainability’s community-university liaison, Katja Brundiers, described the importance of PPBL. “Since the School was first established, we have put value on diverse learning and teaching strategies that simulate professional team settings, address real-world sustainability issues and involve community members as project partners. When an outcome is needed, when it is supposed to be useful, it helps the student to become a more critical thinker and a better problem-solver.”

At the School of Sustainability, nothing is simple. Every problem is multi-faceted, and it takes some complex thinking to come up with the best possible solution.

Staff applied that same complex-thinking approach to this year’s open house event. They wanted not only to show off successful student experiences, but also improve upon young ventures and create new partnership and learning opportunities. They wanted faculty and students to have an opportunity to interact one-on-one. They wanted to welcome project partners, prospective students and the public.

Most of all, they wanted to celebrate, encourage and support the faculty, students and community partners who are leading the way in implementing PPBL, this model of rich, experiential learning and problem-solving.

The staff members asked themselves what kind of event would fulfill all of these needs in an efficient and effective way. What would that look like?

They arrived on the open house and project showcase. Part poster session, part mixer, part lecture, part discussion – all focused on real-world, project- and problem-based learning.

Showcasing real-world learning

The open house and project showcase event was a great venue for the students in Manuel-Navarrete’s course to talk about what they’d learned.

The students – Cara Garz, Monserrat Gomez-Cesar, Julia Mowry and Daniel Muchow – produced quite an exceptional video, but it wasn’t the video quality that mattered. “In addition to learning the course material, these students learned to articulate a message and to manage a project,” said Manuel-Navarrete. Their message: doing an applied project is a great way to learn a subject.

Senior Christian Gort had a similar message. He came to Wrigley Hall armed with fliers, a poster and a pitch. He was there to show off the knowledge and experience he’d gained through his internship, and to find a new intern who could carry on his work with the City of Phoenix Transportation Department’s Bicycle Program during the next school year.

Faculty presented at the event as well. Assistant professor Michael Schoon shared an interesting example of real-world learning. During his course, Sustainable Project Design and Management, Schoon’s team of graduate student co-instructors not only developed a project plan for a local organization, but also mentored undergraduate students to carry out the project.

Schoon and associate professor Rimjhim Aggarwal joined the open house event to review their courses in two “Conversation for Action” discussions. These conversations allowed the professors to interact with current and future students to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and how they might improve on their courses in the future.

The measure of success

Internship coordinator Sada Gilbert, who worked with Brundiers to develop the event, sees this kind of enhanced learning outcome every day. It was the reason for the original internship poster session format launched several years ago. What was lacking before this enhanced event, she says, was an opportunity for students to showcase experiences beyond internships – to other students, to faculty and to the community partners who made it possible.

Graduate representative Amy Minowitz was enthusiastic about the event.

“One thing I hear from sustainability graduate students all the time is that they want to know what other people are doing. What are the faculty doing, what is their research, is there an opportunity to get involved? In general, what is going on in the School?" she said. "This event was a great pilot to address these needs.”

Michelle Schwartz

Manager of Marketing and Communications, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability