Monday, August 29, 2011

Renewable energy the focus of study abroad tour in Greece

Five University of Illinois students, funded in part by the European Union Center under a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant, visited Greece this spring to learn about renewable energy. They explored the difference in EU and US approaches to environmental sustainability, and experienced the Greek economic crisis along the way. See below for the full press release.

URBANA - Five students from the University of Illinois spent a month in Greece this spring, studying renewable energy alongside students from the Agricultural University of Athens (AUA) and the University of Thessaly in Volos. Amy Girlich, Alex Heidtke, Grace Nelson, Rachael Ramsey, and Sarah Shimizu were part of a team-based collaboration that allowed students from both countries to experience the process of identifying and solving real-world engineering problems.

This is the third year Stephen Zahos, a lecturer and Senior Design Capstone Coordinator in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE), has coordinated and led students in the “Cradle of Democracy” study and cultural tour.

“The students learned about various technologies in renewable energy systems such as biofuels, photovoltaics, wind energy, and solar energy, through field trips to installations, and via lectures and demonstrations at both AUA and Thessaly,” said Zahos. “This year we added a hands-on aspect to the trip. Students collected data at a university farm, using instruments that measured soil conductivity and other parameters. Then they used sophisticated software programs to produce three-dimensional plot plans of the ground that they covered.”

“The practical use of that in renewable energy was to maximize the growth of energy crops that are planted specifically for energy use,” Zahos continued. “In Greece’s case, it’s principally sunflower seeds, and other non-food crops, for biodiesel production.”
Because this trip occurred earlier in the year than the previous trips, the students in Greece were still in school and the U of I students were able to work closely with their counterparts.

“Spyros Fountas is an assistant professor at Thessaly, and he set up the program there,” said Zahos. “This wasn’t a typical experience for the students in Greece. They don’t get a lot of hands-on experience – they mostly attend lectures. But Spyros earned his Ph.D. at Purdue, so he was familiar with the American style of teaching and instruction. His students seemed to enjoy the alternative method as well.”

Zahos noted that the installation and application of renewable systems in Greece is guided by European Union directives, which sets goals for each of the member countries. Currently Greece uses approximately 9 percent renewable energy sources, but the goal is 20 percent by the year 2020. “It’s going to be difficult to reach,” said Zahos, “but progress is being made, as evidenced by several installations that popped up since 2010.”

Amy Girlich, a junior in civil and environmental engineering, said the experience was an excellent opportunity to learn more about her intended career path. “I’m looking to focus on environmental engineering and this was a great way to obtain some hands-on experience and learn about biodiesel and sustainability,” she said. “It was interesting to note that Europe and the United States view environmental concerns differently. Almost every house in Greece has a small solar panel on its roof. Many buildings have no air conditioning but instead are built using marble on the inside to keep the air cool. In the United States as a whole, we don’t think as much about what impact we have on the environment.”

“So often, students in a university setting, especially engineers, are spoken to only in terms of the technology – this is what it is, this is how it works,” Zahos said. “But the political, societal, and economic components are the 800-pound gorillas in the room.”
That’s why Zahos was pleased when students were able to attend a lecture by two U.S. Embassy personnel almost immediately on their arrival. “They gave a great talk on sustainability and spoke about all the components of renewable energy, acceptance, sustainability and operation,” he said. ”That provided the students with grounding and a framework for them to be thinking about.”

Zahos said another educational – albeit unintended – aspect of the trip was observing the current economic upheaval in Greece. “We happened to be there at the time their legislature was debating whether to accept the austerity measures required by the EU for a loan bailout,” he said. “I encouraged the students to pay attention and to think about some of the conditions that exist there, and compare and contrast them to what we’re possibly facing here in the States. It’s not good that it’s happening, but I knew the students could learn from the experience.”

The students lived together in an apartment in a typical Athens neighborhood, surrounded by markets, shops, restaurants and ordinary citizens. “They got plenty of exercise walking,” said Zahos, “and we made good use of the city’s well-developed public transportation system.”

Of course, a trip to the beautiful country of Greece has to include seeing the sites, and Zahos said the balance of work and play was about equal. “After travel time, we probably spent 12 days in classes and 12 days sightseeing.”

Sightseeing included a four-day bus trip to learn about the history of Greece, traversing the Samaria Gorge on the Island of Crete, and a one-day, three-island cruise near Athens. Katerina Kassimati, a young woman from Patras who had studied with the department of ABE the previous year, went on the cruise with the visiting students, and then welcomed them to her family’s summer home near Athens. The students spent a day touring the area and enjoyed a home-cooked meal prepared by the Kassimati family.

The five students took it on themselves to plan another excursion, a trip to Santorini for a weekend, which was “amazing,” said Grace Nelson, another junior in civil and environmental engineering. “There were so many memorable experiences in Greece, it’s hard to pick just one. We saw the ruins all over Greece, we saw black sand and red sand beaches, the sunset at Oia, and we met some awesome people at our hostel. This study abroad experience in Greece couldn’t have been better,” Nelson concluded. “I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

The students were even able to connect with Illinois alumni while in the country. The first meeting of the University of Illinois Club of Greece, started by a recent graduate, George Lokkas, who received his master’s in finance at Illinois, was held on the roof garden of the Athens Gate Hotel in full view of the Acropolis and Parthenon at night. Approximately 25 UIUC and UIC graduates, now living in Greece and other parts of Europe, attended the event. Zahos is proud charter member number 25.

Support for the program was provided in part by the Illinois European Union Center under a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant, the Transatlantic Bioenergy Network, the Illinois College of ACES, the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and the Illinois International Programs in Engineering office.


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