Penn Engineer Promotes Sustainability in Argentina

By Marjorie Ferrone

For eight weeks last summer, University of Pennsylvania junior Doug Roman had the opportunity to share his sustainability philosophy at schools in Buenos Aires.

“I have always felt that we owe it to nature, that humans have a responsibility to watch out for the earth.  Renewable energy is a promising path through which to accomplish this,” Roman said, excited about implementing the idea of reducing, reusing and recycling through education.

Majoring in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics and minoring in energy and sustainability, Roman sought a summer position after his sophomore year in which he could channel his interests to effect change.  At Penn’s annual International Opportunities Fair, a sustainability fellowship offered through Cultural Vistas, a non-profit organization that facilitates international connections through career exploration, caught his interest.

Roman, who hails from Cheltenham, Pa., sought the opening in Argentina — over Singapore and Germany — so that he could practice the Spanish he learned through four years in high school and a semester at Penn. Although the first week was an adjustment period picking up technical terminologies, Roman adapted his vocabulary to efficiently execute the goals of the company with which he was paired, Fundación Manos Verdes, or the Green Hands Foundation.

Roman’s workdays varied at the Fundación’s downtown office, which overlooked the Casa Rosada, the Argentinian equivalent to the White House.  About half of the time consisted of organizing contacts and tracking task completion, as the company’s mission was to promote environmental awareness through educational institutions in the country.

The other half of the time was spent at schools within Buenos Aires Province, speaking with students and staff about the prospects of leaving a greener footprint.  Working with three Fundación employees and one German fellow on sabbatical, Roman learned how to approach this tall task, what knowledge base was already in place, what starting point would be most fitting and how to encourage the children to accept the challenge.

One lasting contribution of Manos Verdes in which Roman participated was the establishment of a recycling system. While an informal and limited recycling procedure is in place in some Buenos Aries suburbs, most schools find recycling to be a novel concept. The Fundación donated large recycling bins to most schools, with the funding provided through corporate sponsors. The Manos members also created presentations to instruct students and staff in the basics of recycling, including what can be recycled, how to separate trash from recyclable objects and how to coordinate regular pick-ups with the cooperativa, or recycling center.

For the first few weeks, Roman and his co-workers guided the school through the implementation process by posting instructional signs in classrooms and making regular visits to ensure the students’ progress.

Afterwards, Roman designed a booklet, the contents of which would be a reference point for the school administration after they were entrusted to independently follow the recycling procedures.

Recycling “was completely new to them. But eventually we left them to start running it themselves, and the students gained a lot of responsibility and knowledge by running their own recycling program,” Roman explained.

While distances to the schools varied between a five-block walk and an hour-long van ride, all participating institutes were inside the province.  Roman particularly enjoyed visiting an all-girls elementary school just a few blocks away.

“It was really impressive how inspired the girls were by the concept of recycling.  They were passionate about it and trying to learn as much as they could,” Roman recounted.

On one solo visit to the all-girls school, a teacher asked Roman to brainstorm an idea for a renewable energy science project for the students to perform. Given free rein, Roman drew on concepts from a Penn course titled “Energy Systems, Resources and Technology.”

This class “gave me a broader picture of what the field of energy meant and how it affected sustainability, so it was perfect for me to go into Argentina with that background knowledge,” Roman said.

Accepting the science project challenge, Roman proposed a hands-on assignment that utilized common objects in an exceptional way. The goal was to construct a solar-powered oven by cutting out a three-sided flap in the top of a pizza box, wrapping it in aluminum foil and covering the inside of the cardboard box with black construction paper. On any sunny day, even in the winter, the girls could cook using only the sun’s energy, Roman explained.

Roman’s contribution in the workplace was equally as valuable to him as cultural involvement.

On weekends, he toured historic buildings, visited the nearby Reserva Ecológica Costenera Sur, took a trip to the mountainous Province of San Luis and played pick-up games of soccer and ultimate Frisbee with a group of locals. At a friend’s birthday “asado,” or barbecue, he particularly enjoyed the “bife,” or beef, dinner, which began at 11 p.m., not unusual in Argentina.

Upon returning to Penn’s campus, Roman applied what he learned about Argentina’s sustainable energy development to last semester’s course titled “Energy and Its Impacts.” Placing his experience in the context of a research paper, he and his partner, Meng Li, a master’s candidate in materials science and engineering, compared the percentage of renewable energy actually used in Argentina to the potential percentage that could be consumed if the proper infrastructure was in place.

The results were perplexing, Roman said. For example, the southern region of Patagonia is windy year-round, a phenonmenon which contributes to Argentina's top-five ranking in national wind power potential. Despite this, only 1 percent of Argentina's electricity is generated by renewable resources, a long way from the country’s goal of 8 percent by 2016. 

In the paper, Roman and Li identified a few of the many political and economic reasons that account for retardation in harnessing the power of renewable resources.  After Argentina’s economic crash in 2001, the government enacted a law freezing low energy prices to ensure common accessibility.  Since then, the law has not been repealed. With Argentina’s copious natural gas reserves and high initial costs of renewables, it is less economically viable for companies to sell renewable resources over fossil fuels. Also, the government has been generally opposed to foreign investment, rejecting advise, expertise and materials to emplace infrastructure to extract renewable energy.

Roman plans on returning to Argentina one day to further assist the country in reaching its renewable energy goals.

“I am very interested in the field of renewable energy and also energy efficiency. Having the classroom experience writing the paper and the abroad experience with Fundación Manos Verdes gives me a more holistic view of energy. That will be helpful in a future career,” Roman explained.

No matter what, Roman said, the opportunity to work with children in establishing a strong sustainability foundation has contributed to the nation’s loftier goals.

“The aspect of getting to visit schools and getting kids excited made me feel that I did something because, if these kids are passionate about sustainability, then the future is brighter for Argentina.”

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