Published in UT San Diego, August 18, 2014
A walk in the park. It is a well-known concept that sometimes the best ideas come when you let your mind wander. In this case the park was Balboa, and the wanderers were Stanley Maloy, dean of the College of Sciences at San Diego State University, and Betty Peabody, founder of Friends of Balboa Park. Maloy observed.
He observed a park employee looking at a computer that showed a pipe break. “He knew the general vicinity but didn’t know where the exact valve was because they hadn’t mapped out the pipes,” said Maloy, who quickly saw that SDSU faculty and students could help.
This led to a project in which SDSU students used GIS (geographic information systems) technology to map the underground water system and valves in an area of Balboa Park. Today, with the app that they created in Google Earth, “you can click on any part of the pipeline, and it will tell you exactly what needs to be shut down,” said Matt Rahn, who coordinated the project on which four SDSU students worked. Rahn is the director of SDSU’s field studies program in the department of environmental sciences.
Until this project was completed, park employees often had to shut down a larger grid, said Michael Tully, district manager of park maintenance for San Diego city parks. This type of learning has many benefits. “The students are the park stewards of tomorrow, and their involvement will give them a better appreciation of this wonderful asset,” said Peabody.
Students are taking the classroom to the streets, and good things are happening. We explored this with some entrepreneurial college students who are working on cracking real challenges.
At the University of San Diego, Rice Pollution Solution was awarded a record $20,000 in seed money at the university’s Social Innovation Challenge in April. “The idea originated when our group looked into different food-related issues that people around the world are facing,” said Clay Mosolino, a mechanical engineering major who is one of the four team members. “We found that about 10 percent of China’s rice is contaminated with high levels of heavy metals. That’s a substantial amount of rice when you consider that China is the largest consumer and producer of rice with a population of over 1 billion, that’s a huge portion of the world population being affected.”
The team focused on figuring out an inexpensive way to filter out the metals from the irrigation water. Through their research, they learned that some plants naturally absorb certain types of elements, so their effort now is on how to incorporate this technique into a solution that is scalable and attractive to paying customers.
As an engineer, Mosolino said he hadn’t been exposed to business before tackling this project. “Now we’ve been learning a lot about what it is to begin a business, how to come up with a business plan, how to figure out a business model, and how to communicate your plan to investors,” he said.
We believe that this type of real-world experience should be incorporated into the curriculum for all engineering students. One of the key principles of the startup game and success in any business is to get out of the office or classroom and go talk to your customer.
Anastasiya Irkhin, who was an SDSU undergraduate when she worked on the Balboa Park project, said the most valuable part was “learning how to apply what I learned in the classroom to real-life problems. I learned how to work with all kinds of people — groundskeepers, board members of Friends of the Park, parks and recreation staff members, and other students.” Furthermore, she said that her grades improved because she saw the relevance of what she was studying in developing real-world solutions. Her participation helped her gain acceptance into a master’s program in homeland security at SDSU.
What we see in San Diego is a deep pool of committed, engaged, ambitious young people who want to change the world. And age is no barrier. There is no shortage of challenges and the world is definitely available for change. The classroom has no walls and the students are all ages.