"The C4 was a great way to move from the technical perspective of an Engineering project, to a more holistic and reflective of real life." - Theresa Nguyen
Name: Theresa Nguyen
Theresa Nguyen is a graduated student in mechanical engineering and international development from Lassonde School of Engineering, York University. She is interested in the intersection of engineering, social impact, and arts. She was the lead project manager, heat designer, and part of the research and implementation team in the engineering collaboration in C4 in the Solar Floatie project. The Solar Floatie is a low-cost solar concentrator aimed to provide heat and electricity to off-grid communities in El Norte Chico, Chile. Her team has been awarded the Patel Family Award, Best Interdisciplinary Project, and Honourable Mention for Best Social Impact Project.
We got a chance to ask her more about her experience:
What inspired you to join this course?
Prior to university, I was interested in a lot of different things. Growing up, I was primarily interested in the arts, such as videography. Later, I got involved in politics through Model UN, Model City Hall, and just debating in general. These were all areas that I found to be impactful in society. When I finally got into university, I wanted to study engineering as I excelled in the sciences and believed it would be a field that would be greatly impactful. I got lucky because I ended up studying Engineering and International Development in a dual-degree program. It was good to have an opportunity to combine my knowledge on both the subjects, as they’re not always seen as compatible – most people assume that engineers in international development contexts just go to different countries to build wells or other infrastructure in a developing community. This shouldn’t be the only case. I believe that engineers as a technical professional have a lot more potential in being part of creating political and social impact.
I started university with a lot of different things I was interested. I actually started out into more of the arts background. I was really interested in Videography. And then later, I became more interested in Politics—So I was involved in Model City Hall, Model UN, Debating in general. When I finally got into university, I wanted it to be a place where I could combine those interests. I ended up studying Engineering and International Development as a dual-degree program. I was always looking for opportunity to combine my knowledge on both the subjects. They’re not always seen as compatible unless it’s like an Engineer going and building a well or some kind of infrastructure in a developing community. But I believe that Engineers as a technical professional have a lot more potential in creating political and social impact.
How did your experience in the C4 course impact your outlook on your program/life/work?
The C4 was a great way to move from the technical perspective of an Engineering project, to a more holistic and reflective of real-life—with multiple stakeholders and multiple needs. We saw that there was more motivation behind these projects—not just progress for the sake of progress, but really looking at people and the issues that they’re surrounded with it.
It was definitely a good challenge. I think much of the world is very “silo-ed off”, especially in a very technical field, where we tend to stay within the comforts of our own expertise. This project was the first real introduction into the interdisciplinary work that I want to do. For me, personally, it gave me a chance to communicate with people from different backgrounds and taking into account the very real and different perspectives. It’s not only about there being multiple different opinions, it’s about seeing the different approaches, and the value in having so many perspectives. We get to consider expertise from many different fields.
What advice would you give to students considering taking this course?
Working in an interdisciplinary team is a different challenge in and of itself, so expect challenges. And that’s not to say that these challenges or that friction are bad, but it’s important to be aware of these things. The more aware and receptive you are to new ideas, the brighter your outcomes will become.
Push yourself and others to work in an environment that is not comfortable for you. Many of the projects that you’ll be working on do not have easy solutions – the projects are related to complex issues that have varying socio-economic and technical challenges. It’s difficult to solve a problem with just a website or an app. It’s important to recognize that and be open to being creative in the approach to the problem and that’s the best way to look at it.
We spend these four years of our lives developing strong competencies in our own field. And it’s great, you know; there’s merit to being experts in our own field. But this is such a great opportunity, not only to apply your expertise but to build yourself up. For example, a good Engineer isn’t just understanding the technical pieces, it’s about how good design influences and takes into account human capabilities and I believe this is true of every field of study. By working in multi-disciplinary teams, it’s a great opportunity to be your own expert and that elevates the challenge.
"As an international studies student, it was really eye-opening for me because it broadened my perspective on what I could apply my studies to. It was surprising how much of what I had learned was applicable to the ‘Solar Floatie’ project." - Megan Tran
Name: Megan Tran
Megan is a recent International Studies graduate from Glendon and worked on the Solar Floatie during her time in C4. She currently works as a Sustainability Officer with an environmental non-profit and is involved with Ally Squared, a youth non-profit that explores the practice of allyship.
What inspired you to take this course?
For me, because international studies are so research-focused, I wanted to do a course that was more project-based. I was looking for something closer to what I would be doing after I graduate. This was a chance for me to focus on developing myself for the workplace and working on a project that is more or less based on real-world situations.
Tell me about your project.
I worked on the Solar Floatie project. It is an Inflatable Solar Collector which provides heat and electricity for remote communities in Chile. I worked on the Research ad Implementation side of the project. So, the questions I helped to address were: “Who is this product for? How do we best incorporate their perspective into the development and implementations process so that it actually meets their specific needs?”
As an international studies student, it was really eye-opening for me because it broadened my perspective on what I could apply my studies to. It was surprising how much of what I had learned was applicable to this project. For example, in ILST, we talk about systems of oppression and colonialism. That was something that I thought a lot about while working on this project as we were trying to avoid the international development pitfall of an organization that blindly imposes new structures on a vulnerable community, without considering the actual need. I used a lot of that type of knowledge when thinking about those projects.
How did your experience in the C4 course impact your outlook on your program/life/work?
I came out of the course really inspired by Interdisciplinary Collaboration. It broadened my perspective and made me feel like this is how we’ll create effective solutions to the world’s problems. Through having so many diverse perspectives and having all different kinds of knowledge will contribute to a solution that takes into account all the multi-dimensional nature of many of the world’s problems. More personally, it confirmed my decision not to go straight into a master’s program. Instead, I want to explore different industries and fields to become more well-rounded and gain different skills.
Because I participated in C4, I saw how valuable it is to gain different perspectives and learn from different people. The C4 project I worked on deepened my passion for Sustainability and Climate Action. So right now, I’m working for an environmental non-profit called Rethink Green and I’m volunteering for a youth organization, Ally Squared, that focusses on allyship and amplifying local voices in the community. This was also inspired by my research and our approach to including local community perspectives on the C4 project.
Moreover, the innovative aspect of the C4 project also piqued my interest in the start-up industry in the private sector. I’d be interested in continuing Innovative Research and Implementation in the private sector. Then finally, I’d like to go back for a master’s in public policy.
What advice would you give to a student considering taking this course?
I would say it’s really important to make sure you’re communicating with your team members and you have an understanding of how each of you works. It is a hurdle, I believe, that every team has to face but it’s important because it’ll help to know how each member mesh. The faster you figure that dynamic out, the smoother your project will run.
Also, it’s important to use all the resources you have available to you. There’s a lot of people for ideas or to bounce ideas off of. Even people outside of the C4 community, like your friends, can provide helpful insight into your project.
For fellow colleagues in the Liberal Arts, do take the time to think about how your work can contribute to the projects and how that fits with your team member’s work. That’ll make it easier to figure out how the puzzle pieces together. When you’re thinking about other contributions to the projects, try to engage yourself with their work. Gaining even a basic understanding of your other team members’ work will help piece your work together.
Besides gaining knowledge from interdisciplinary exposure, it gave me an amazing opportunity to think outside of the box. In this course, no one will give you the direction as to how to solve the problems and that forces you to think more creatively and how to approach a problem. It’s a definitely challenging course, but if you’re up for it, it’s really rewarding. It is such a unique opportunity.