NEWAL: A multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural learning experience for ETH students

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NEWAL: A multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural learning experience for ETH students

The NEWAL learning experience brought together 22 students from Swiss and West African academic institutions whose research projects focused on the overarching topic of “Water and Life.” The experience included a winter school in Ghana, remote research, and an online workshop to evaluate research results. An important goal of NEWAL was to equip the participating students with knowledge and skills to help them conduct research that could contribute towards effectively addressing sustainable development goals.

The overarching and innovative goal of NEWAL was to promote multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural learning with a focus on addressing sustainable development goals (SDGs) as they relate to water. Especially in Africa, access to freshwater (SDG 6) is a prerequisite to achieving SDGs that pertain to health (SDG 3), food security (SDG 2), energy (SDG 7), and poverty reduction (SDG 1). Furthermore, climate change (SDG 13) will influence water availability in many regions, and the overuse of water resources could lead to insecurity and potential conflict (SDG 16). The critical importance of water for life therefore requires an approach that connects all these SDGs and develops a common understanding of how current and future water-related challenges can be met.

NEWAL 2020
The NEWAL learning experience was designed to include the following components: 1) introduction to global and local water challenges at a winter school in Africa; followed by 2) independent master or bachelor research activities including field work in Africa; ending with 3) presentation of the students’ research and discussion of synergies at a wrap-up summer school in Switzerland.
The 2020 winter school took place at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana in February. In attendance were 8 students from Swiss institutions of higher education, including 3 ETH master students in Environmental Engineering, 9 university students from Ghana, 2 students from Liberia, and 3 students from Ivory Coast. The school included inputs by Swiss and Ghanaian faculty, field visits, meetings with stakeholders, and group work. It was a dynamic and inspiring week during which new perspectives were learned and new friendships were forged.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the ETH students’ planned summer field work in Ghana had to be cancelled but they adapted their research accordingly, as did the other students who participated in the winter school. Prior to a one day virtual workshop in September, the students shared their research results as a video teaser and a 10 minute pre-recorded presentation. The research results, links to SDGs, and how the research could be put to practice in solving sustainable development challenges were discussed during the online workshop. New opportunities for collaboration among the involved Swiss and African institutions and individuals, representing a wide range of disciplines, were also discussed and will be further elaborated at a follow up event.

ETH affiliated
Prof. Dr. Peter Molnar, Institute of Environmental Engineering ETH Zurich, NEWAL faculty and advisor of the participating ETH master students Dennis Eberli, Sabine Hain, and Thierry Hohmann.

NEWAL 2020 was organized in association with M. Burkhardt and R. Stadler (Applied University of Eastern Switzerland – OST), M. Peter (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland – FHNW), C. Studer (Bern University of Applied Sciences – BFH), M. Winkler and D. Dietler (Swiss TPH), and A. Bleich (Eawag).

NEWAL - an innovative learning opportunity

The NEWAL format, which included a winter school in Ghana and interactions with African faculty and stakeholders, as well as field visits, was highly effective in sensitizing students to the true challenges of development facing local communities. Their research topics were subsequently chosen based on the issues that they observed to be most urgent. Field work would have further complemented this experience, but was unfortunately not feasible due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Regardless, the relationships ETH students developed with their African counterparts and faculty at KNUST gave them access to local knowledge which helped them pursue research relevant to SDGs. The follow-up in the September virtual workshop gave students the opportunity to further explore how their research could be put into practice in the African context. Regarding replication, there are plans for future editions of NEWAL with no more than 24 students at a time in order to effectively develop personal relationships across disciplines and cultures, maximize students’ learning through dedicated supervision by Swiss and African-based faculty, and provide a platform for the students’ research to be taken up by partnering NGOs.

Three things that students said they would never forget from the Winter School in Ghana:

Hearing first hand from the assembly woman about the struggles of receiving safe drinking water, The interactions and constructive discussions with international students, The extensive knowledge of local stakeholders on their issues, especially the expertise of the farmers.
NEWAL student
The people I met, The knowledge I have, The experience.
NEWAL student
The different presentations, The inter-cultural relations, and also The food.
NEWAL student