The National Science Foundation recently awarded $450,000 to Louisiana State University Construction Management Professor Yimin Zhu and his team of researchers for a program in which LSU will work with the American Society of Thermal and Fluids Engineers, as well as Hong Kong Polytechnic University, to establish the U.S.-Hong Kong Center of Leadership Development in Built Environment Sustainability. The center will conduct international research and professional training activities for U.S. graduate students, preparing them for work in a global setting.
"Built environment sustainability as a global challenge affects the well-being of hundreds of millions of people, their communities, and the future of their lives," Zhu said. "Hong Kong's unique sustainable urban development challenges and solutions can offer U.S. students exceptional international research experiences on this topic."
The program, called IRES Track III: International Research Experience and Professional Development in Built Environment Sustainability, will take about 20 recent STEM graduates from participating U.S. universities and allow them to network with Hong Kong students and professionals for nine months. During this time, the students will conduct research in areas of built environment sustainability and utilize ASTFE's media and outreach programs to publicize activities that include poster sessions and webinars for practicing leadership skills and developing professional networks.
"More than 50% of engineering graduate students work for industry or government agencies, so the preparation for them needs to be different," Zhu said. "We need to add more to their current training other than the lab. They will learn what we call transferable skills—leadership, communication and global competence. This program will give students international exposure and allow them to work in a multicultural environment."
IRES Track III includes a pre-visit, virtual training camp that provides self-paced online learning programs on leadership development, built environment sustainability, information on program logistics, and virtual teaming opportunities for U.S. and Hong Kong students and mentors. There is also an eight-week visit to Hong Kong, where U.S. students engage in an innovation lab.
Zhu, who is the principal investigator on the project, saw a need for this program when he realized that STEM graduate students don't have access to researchers outside of academia.
"Having a research network of faculty members from different universities and industries has helped me a lot over the last five to six years, so I thought maybe this would be a good experience if our students could somehow participate in this type of network," he said.
The three-year program will send the first cohort of students to Hong Kong in the summer of 2020. Faculty at the Research Institute of Sustainable Urban Development at HKPU will provide mentorship for the U.S. students in Hong Kong. The project team members, who come from backgrounds such as engineering, architecture, construction, computer science, and social sciences, will be responsible for recruiting graduate students from underrepresented groups throughout the nation.
Working alongside Zhu are ASTFE Senior Vice President Yong Tao, LSU School of Leadership & Human Resource Development Assistant Professor Tyree Mitchell and Associate Director Tracey Rizzuto, and HKPU Vice President of Student Affairs Geoffrey Shen.
"This project is unique to both U.S. and international graduate students in that it involves professional engineering societies like ASTFE," Tao said. "ASTFE has members in the areas of energy and environment and can provide a platform to facilitate the interaction among students, faculty, and industrial professionals with the aim to develop globally competitive leadership skills."
Mitchell, who oversees LSU's Live Leadership Simulation, says that teaching leadership skills will improve the graduates' chances of excelling in their careers.
"Enhancing STEM students' professional skills is very important because such skills are highly desirable for employers," he said. "Yet graduate education programs in STEM fields often give greater attention to developing students as researchers and academics while giving less attention to developing other skills that are important for their careers. The goal of our professional development program is to develop STEM graduate students to be culturally competent leaders."