STEM: Students and Teachers Embracing Mission

By Michael J. Quinn and Jean M. Jacoby, Seattle University

Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)


Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Two guiding documents challenge Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States to engage with the world through service: [1] The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities' self-evaluation instrument asks every American Jesuit college and university to examine how well it “seeks to insert itself into the world on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and those seeking justice"; [2] Ex Corde Ecclesiae describes “an institutional commitment to the service of others” as a fundamental characteristic of a Catholic university, and urges universities to “help promote development in emerging nations." A Jesuit university with vibrant, outward-looking STEM programs is well equipped to respond positively to these challenges.

At Seattle University (SU), we have been engaged in international humanitarian efforts for more than a decade. These efforts have involved a broad cross-section of the University community with faculty, staff and student participants. One of the pioneers was chemistry professor Sue Jackels, who learned about the plight of coffee farmers in Nicaragua during a meeting of ISJACHEM, the International Jesuit Association of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Universities and Schools, in 2001. A worldwide glut of coffee beans had caused prices to fall dramatically. Responding to the urgent request of a Nicaraguan colleague at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), Managua, Dr. Jackels resolved to do something to help the farmers improve the quality of their beans so that they could be sold at a higher price.

Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)


Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. (Photo by Seattle University)

Seattle University funded her sabbatical research into the coffee fermentation process in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services Nicaragua, UCA Managua, and a nascent cooperative of poor Nicaraguan coffee producers. With subsequent funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Jackels conducted field work and lab analysis at both Seattle University and UCA Managua to develop a kit for coffee fermentation assessment to help Nicaraguan farmers. Building upon Dr. Jackels’ work, SU civil and environmental engineering professor Michael Marsolek advised a student team in 2007-08 that designed a coffee mill and wastewater treatment facility for a remote location. The mill allows local coffee farmers to improve fermentation and protects streams from the acidic wastewater runoff. Most recently, Dr. Jackels expanded her project by collaborating with Dr. Quan Le and students in SU's Albers School of Business and Economics to successfully import and sell the cooperative’s Fair Trade organic coffee, which is now of excellent quality.

Our international humanitarian activities have spanned the world, including projects in the Caribbean islands (Jamaica, Haiti), Africa (Zambia, Kenya), and Asia (Thailand), that have fostered deeply satisfying and productive relationships with local communities. Over the past decade, SU civil and environmental engineering professor Phillip Thompson has led nine trips to Huai Nam Kun, Thailand, where student/faculty teams have constructed a school dormitory, built a footbridge, installed drinking water treatment systems, and taught English and music to local students. As one project is completed, others are percolating and implemented in successive years, demonstrating Seattle University’s commitment not only to specific communities but also to the dissemination and application of new and appropriate tools to support developing communities in other regions.

Our first project in Africa was to install a water wheel-driven spiral pump on the Zambezi River, giving villagers in Zambia access to water without having to step into the crocodile-infested river. Later projects focused on using sustainable energy to provide Zambian villagers with access to electricity. In August 2014, a team of students, faculty, villagers, and contractors installed a 5-kilowatt charging station in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, powered by two wind turbines and twelve solar panels. This project won the $25,000 grand prize in the Connecting Professional Practice and Education competition sponsored by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

Seattle University’s humanitarian work in STEM is not limited to international settings:

  • A few years ago, heavy rains in Western Washington damaged hundreds of homes in the town of Curtis and left the local drinking water treatment plant incapable of providing safe water to the community. A team of students and faculty traveled to the area and installed a water treatment system similar to the two employed in Thailand.
  • A recent senior engineering design project focused on the problem of substandard housing for migrant workers in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle.
  • Through the Seattle University Math Corps and STEM Club, about 50 students each year engage with high-need youth at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School near campus, as part of the Seattle University Youth Initiative.

Students experience meaningful work, which is truly interdisciplinary and based on teamwork in often challenging situations. These experiences have transformed the lives of some of our students in dramatic ways. Here are two examples. Andrew Mewborn is a 2014 electrical engineering graduate who participated in the Muhuru Bay electrification project. Andrew has decided to commit his career to social entrepreneurship for the purpose of electrification in the developing world. Another example is Sonya Milonova, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 2009. As a student, Sonya worked on a storm water diversion project for an elementary school in Nicaragua and implemented the Zambian waterwheel project. She completed a master’s degree and now works as a research fellow for the Harvard School of Public Health, where she has helped to develop ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems for air disinfection and has continued her work in Africa.

Our commitment to humanitarian projects is demonstrated by the educational opportunities we provide our students. Many of the projects have been conducted as part of the Seattle University Project Center, which provides externally sponsored projects for senior capstone courses required for all engineering, computer science, and environmental science students. Other students are engaged in humanitarian projects through University partnerships with organizations such as Engineers for a Sustainable World and Kilowatts for Humanity. The rewards of such work are rich and life-changing, reflecting Seattle University’s values in action.

Michael J. Quinn, Ph.D. is Dean and Jean M. Jacoby, Ph.D. is Associate Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at Seattle University.

[1] Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Some Characteristics of Jesuit Colleges and Universities: A Self-evaluation Instrument (2013): http://bit.ly/1JWQMia
[2] Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) (1990): http://bit.ly/1PrbdQh.