“When research is driven by the local community, it is much more meaningful and can actually have an impact on society,” said Marina Freire-Gormaly, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Lassonde School of Engineering.
Freire-Gormaly speaks from experience, based on a volunteer project she co-led this year for Academics Without Borders (AWB) for the engineering faculty at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Uganda. Rahim Rezaie, PhD, senior program development officer at AWB, was her co-lead in this enrichment project, Strengthening Engineering Education & Research Program at AWB.
When Freire-Gormaly discovered that, like her research lab, Academics Without Borders was committed to improving access to education in order to improve society through high-quality research and education, she knew she had found a perfect outlet for her interest in knowledge sharing and building capacity. AWB’s mission is to help developing countries improve their universities, enabling them to train their own experts and conduct research that assists with their country’s development.
“When Academics Without Borders put out the call to develop an engineering program to build capacity in research, I was really excited,” said Freire-Gormaly, whose own research focuses on the development of new technologies and materials for energy sustainability, safe and healthy indoor environments considering COVID-19 aerosol transmission, and sustainable water treatment systems.
Freire-Gormaly signed on to become AWB’s inaugural co-lead for the new Strengthening Engineering Education and Research (SEER) program that aims to enhance teaching and research capacity in low- and middle-income settings through training and mentorship. (Although AWB’s programs generally employ an in-person model, it was decided that SEER would be delivered remotely, given the constraints of the pandemic.)
The SEER program began at MUST, a young university, with an ongoing relationship with ABW. SEER offered MUST engineering faculty a series of online workshops to train them in all aspects of research and education. Guest speakers from universities worldwide gave talks at each workshop, addressing key topics such as mentoring students, doing literature reviews, designing research projects and writing funding proposals. Once they were exposed to the fundamentals, the MUST faculty formed transdisciplinary teams to create their own research proposals for short-term projects that could be done locally.
“It was a hands-on learning experience that took our participants from ideation to systematically planning their research, justifying their budget and making their outcomes real and achievable, given the team’s expertise,” said Freire-Gormaly. “They then have a model they can refer to for future research projects.”
A volunteer committee of peers is reviewing the 12 team proposals and a number of them will be supported by AWB. The other teams will be able to use the feedback they receive to refine their proposals and submit them to others for funding. The MUST faculty created proposals for: a livestock monitoring system; water treatment using peeling from matoke fruit (East African highland banana); improving solar street lighting; and finding a way to provide hospitals with a more stable system for providing oxygen.
The workshops lasted for about six months, and volunteers will continue mentoring faculty for a year. Freire-Gormaly is one of the mentors, but she was also an instrumental member of the team that developed the curriculum and organized the seminars, creating a model for an ongoing, replicable program that AWB hopes to repeat four times a year.
“Once we have a robust curriculum and mentorship process, we’ll be able to have a much broader impact,” she said. “Eventually, our trainees will develop their own community of practice and also collaborate among themselves. Training the trainer is the key; we want our trainees to lead their own projects and do knowledge mobilization locally and independently.”
Freire-Gormaly also discovered the online model had strengths of its own, allowing for more breadth in guest speakers, since faculty from around the globe weren’t required to travel to the location or to commit two weeks of their time. She says future iterations of SEER might incorporate a hybrid model, allowing for some faculty to assist on site and others to contribute remotely.
AWB applauded her commitment in bringing SEER to fruition. “York’s Professor Marina Freire-Gormaly has been a key leader from day one of the Strengthening Engineering Education and Research program,” said Western University Professor Emeritus Greg Moran, who is the executive director of Academics Without Borders. “Without her leadership the program would not have been possible.”
The dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering also applauded the initiative and Freire-Gormaly’s participation. “As a proud partner of Academics Without Borders, we are delighted to collaborate with Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science and Technology to help advance the faculty of engineering’s teaching and research expertise,” said Jane Goodyer, dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University.
“This program, co-led by Professor Marina Freire-Gormaly, has made great strides, with both faculty mentees and mentors learning from each other to create positive change. Thank you to all those involved for fostering global fluencies and cross-cultural knowledge, which will drive socially responsible action.”
As a researcher focused on technology with a societal impact, Freire-Gormaly was delighted to point other researchers in a similar direction and to enlarge her own network of researchers. It also sparked some ideas for her own research lab. Although she was the only York engineering faculty member working on the project, she would love to have colleagues join her. “This has been a great community to be part of, and to know I can really help people in their daily lives motivates my research,” Freire-Gormaly said.
For more information about York University’s involvement with AWB, email York International at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Elaine Smith, special contributor