Students to tackle energy, water challenges in far North

(Edmonton) Three University of Alberta students will spend their summer in the far North as part of a new major initiative to work with northern and remote communities.

Called Engage North, the project begins this year by sending students to work in Pangnirtung, an Inuit community of about 1,400 in Nunavut. The students will work for the hamlet on drainage planning and energy efficiency issues, with support from engineering professionals who will serve as mentors.

The students will be working in Pangnirtung from May 15 to Aug. 23.

Heidi Johnson, a third-year mechanical engineering student, says she has been on rewarding co-op placements in southern Alberta, but had hopes of working in the North—she imagined applying for co-op positions in industry or the resource sector. Instead, she is bound for Pangnirtung, where she and environmental engineering student Stephanie Lettner will be working on an energy audit to help determine ways of improving energy efficiency and reducing costs.

Efficiencies will pay off quickly

“A large portion of the hamlet’s budget goes toward energy costs—heating and electricity. Because all of their power comes from diesel generators, any sort of efficiencies in heating or electricity will make a huge difference and pay off quickly because diesel is so expensive to begin with,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Lettner will be looking at energy flow through the town, assessing the efficiency of appliances and fixtures, and searching for areas of heat loss. They will be coming up with remedies wherever possible.

“All of their diesel is shipped up there once a year,” said Lettner, “so it really is a limited resource. We might be coming up with suggestions that are pretty straightforward, like changing from incandescent to LED lighting.”

The water challenge: Preventing flooding

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Third-year civil engineering student Keita Hill will be investigating drainage issues in the hamlet. Pangnirtung is located on the shore of Pangnirtung Fjord, at the base of a mountainous region. In 2009, a flood caused by unusually rapid melting combined with rainfalls caused the collapse of two bridges that cross the Duval River. And parts of the hamlet experience flooding every spring, according to Pangnirtung’s senior administrative officer, Ron Mongeau.

Working with Mongeau and his staff, Hill will gather information on drainage grades and help develop a flood prevention plan.

“The opportunity to develop a relationship with the University of Alberta, to look at some critical issues in our community and find ways to address them using the skills of these senior students who have access to large amounts of information and technology, and who have the support of knowledgeable advisors, is amazing,” said Mongeau.

Building an enduring partnership

The three students are well aware that they are taking the first steps into what should become an enduring partnership that brings different cultures together.

“The program seems to be well designed in that we are learning to bridge what will certainly be a cultural divide,” said Hill. “We are building things that are technically engineering projects, but we are also building a long-term community partnership.”

Engage North was established by mechanical engineering professors Sushanta Mitra and Larry Kostiuk with civil engineering graduate student Fraser Mah and fourth-year civil engineering student Tyler Heal. Mitra is the U of A lead on a five-year, $30-million collaboration with India to develop new technologies to ensure health, safety and sustainability for rural and remote communities in both countries.

Called IC-IMPACTS, the collaboration is an ideal way to address some of the country’s most vexing challenges. In Canada alone, for example, access to clean water is an enormous challenge, particularly in First Nations and remote communities.

“We are working in partnerships with communities, and that is what I like about this initiative,” said Mitra. “Engage North goes beyond the well-tested path of doing research, particularly in the engineering domain. It will help us connect with communities.”

In its inaugural year, Engage North is taking baby steps. This year it is sending the three engineering students on placements. In subsequent years it is going to include students from disciplines as diverse as public health and agriculture. It will also expand to include universities across Canada—some of which have already expressed interest.

Caylie Gnyra, a member of the Engage North organizing committee, emphasizes that Engage North and the students are in a partnership.

“We are at a point where it’s really important for the rest of the world to develop relationships with indigenous communities,” she said. “We have all of this technology about sustainability but we can probably learn a lot about sustainability from the people who are living in one of the harshest environments in the world.”

Doug Goss, U of A board chair, says the university is already a powerhouse in northern research, with internationally respected projects such as the Canadian Circumpolar Institute and the Circumpolar Library. Engage North, Goss says, adds an exciting new dimension to the university’s connection to northern and remote communities.

“When we talk about ‘uplifting the whole people,’ that doesn’t end in Alberta,” Goss said. “I continue to be astonished by the ties this university has all over the world and the differences we make.”