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College of Engineering Signs Memorandum of Understanding with Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería

The College of Engineering has taken its longstanding relationship with the people and communities of Nicaragua to the next level. In April, the College signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería (UNI), the country’s premier college of engineering, to establish a formal alliance that will open the door to new collaborative research and teaching initiatives that can improve communities in the United States, Nicaragua, and beyond.

"We are thrilled to establish this strategic partnership with an institution that is so vital to the economic development of Nicaragua," says Dr. Ortega, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research and The James R. Birle Professor of Energy Technology. "Together, students and faculty from both engineering colleges will advance research in service to others."

On April 12, a formal signing was held in the College's new Villanova Multidisciplinary Design Lab. The delegation from UNI included Aldo Urbina Villalta, Rector; Ronald Torres Torres, Dean of Electrical Engineering Faculty; Oscar Gutierrez Somarriba, Ph.D., Dean of Construction Faculty; María Virginia Moncada, Head of Electronic Engineering Department and Coordinator, Renewable Energy Masters Program; Windelia Francisca Cadenas Vivas, Vice Director, Technology Park at UNI.

The impetus for this partnership originated in 2009. While at a national conference that March, Dr. Pritpal Singh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, met Carolina Barreto, a former student of Susan Kinne, a professor at UNI who oversees Grupo Fenix. Grupo Fenix seeks to create an awareness of sustainable lifestyles among rural communities through technical and cultural exchange, promotion, and renewable energy research. Barreto connected Dr. Singh and the College to Kinne, who helped facilitate a formal introduction to key engineering faculty and administration at UNI.

That May, Dr. Ortega and Dr. Singh returned to Waslala to meet with UNI's engineering leadership and identify potential new service-learning projects or teaching and research initiatives that could be conducted together, building on the positive experiences the College has had in the region for many years. For example, through annual service-learning spring break trips to Waslala, the best-known service projects on Villanova's campus, engineering students and faculty traditionally implement gravity-flow water networks to connect water from springs in the region’s surrounding mountains to Waslala's villages. "It immediately occurred to us that there would be real value in partnering with UNI to help continue the work we are already doing on our annual trips and start new service initiatives for the community," says Dr. Ortega. On subsequent trips to the region and conversations via Skype over the next year, Dr. Ortega and Dr. Singh continued to meet with members of UNI to establish objectives and opportunities for a mutually beneficial partnership.

The new Memorandum of Understanding signed this spring provides for a series of collaborative opportunities:

  • First, UNI students will be invited to join in Villanova-sponsored service projects that take place in Nicaragua, notably Water for Waslala and a new telehealth project in the same region designed to connect community health workers in remote villages with trained hospital staff in Waslala. In addition, UNI will host Villanova engineering students who are working on these projects at various points throughout the year to allow for prototype testing, installations, etc.
  • Second, Dr. Singh will serve as a Visiting Professor, teaching graduate courses on energy efficiency and solar and renewable energy. Alumnus Daniel Weeden EE'89 and President of Eneractive Solutions, joined Dr. Singh in enhancing UNI's existing course syllabus and strengthening its focus on efficiency. To date, Dr. Singh has taught in person and via Skype. He is also teaching a course for UNI's master of science degree program in renewable energy.
  • Third, this MOU extends the College's existing Partnership for Global Faculty, which also includes the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Through this program, faculty from both institutions will work together at Villanova or UNI on research that will improve local communities. Opportunities for the first collaborations include biofuel research using byproducts from coffee bean farming, "green" infrastructure materials, and micro-hydroelectricity.

Future plans for the partnership include outreach to other engineering colleges throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico.

Dr. Gary Gabriele, Drosdick Endowed Dean of Engineering; Aldo Urbina Villalta, Rector at UNI; and Father Kail Ellis, acting VPAA
Dr. Gary Gabriele, Drosdick Endowed Dean of Engineering; Aldo Urbina Villalta, Rector at UNI; and Father Kail Ellis, acting VPAA, sign the memorandum of understanding.
Members of the UNI delegation, College of Engineering leadership and faculty
Members of the UNI delegation, College of Engineering leadership and faculty, and the University celebrate the new partnership.