Graduate student Abby Watrous will study in China during the 2009-10 academic year to track a contributing factor in one of the world's worst environmental problems, a research endeavor that is being funded by a prestigious national scholarship.
Watrous, who is working toward her doctoral degree in civil engineering, received a Fulbright Scholarship for an intensive study of the Chinese language and development of hands-on teaching modules in renewable energy for Chinese and American elementary students.
Watrous's research focuses on renewable energy education and alternatives to coal for cooking and heating in rural China. There is much to be gained by replacing coal on many levels, said Watrous, a fourth-generation engineer from New Jersey.
China is the world's top producer and consumer of coal. In addition to producing about 75 percent of the country's electricity, coal is burned in home stoves, especially in rural areas where almost 700 million people live. Cheap and abundant, coal exacts a heavy toll on human health and the environment with high levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
Her goal is to replace polluting coal with a practical, effective, and affordable alternative.
"I'm looking at the data on what people are burning, what kind of stoves they use, and how much energy they're using," she says. "On a small scale the coal fumes are not healthy for the women and their children. On a larger scale the fumes are affecting climate change."
As an undergraduate student at Rice University, Watrous went on an Engineers Without Borders trip with CU-Boulder Engineering Professor Bernard Amadei, founder of the nonprofit organization. It was during this pivotal trip to Africa that Watrous first realized her passion for engineering as a means of sustainable development.
In 2006, Watrous earned her master's in civil and environmental engineering at CU-Boulder and expects to finish her PhD in civil engineering in 2011 through the Building Systems Program with a focus on green design, energy efficiency, and renewables.
In 2007, she received a National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute fellowship to conduct research at Tsinghua University in Beijing for eight weeks. She stayed for a year as a CU Benjamin Brown fellow to continue her research until just after the summer 2008 Olympics.
While working on her master's degree, Watrous taught elementary-age students hands-on lessons about engineering for two years in the Lafayette school system as an NSF GK-12 fellow, which fueled her passion for teaching about energy. While in Beijing she wrote an instructional booklet on renewable energy for English and Chinese elementary students titled Let's Explore Energy.
"The book is about how kids can make a difference and perhaps save the world," she says.
After finishing her PhD, Watrous hopes to work for a non-governmental organization that conducts rural energy development projects in the developing world. She also would like to continue to teach.
"In a perfect scenario I would discover some fantastic engineering breakthrough that would make a difference for people living in poverty," says Watrous. "At CU I've been given a lot of amazing opportunities and I have the opportunity to give back."