Four researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have been selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to aid in the development and implementation of bold, new, potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training. The National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award will grant nearly $3 million to the university. The research will focus on reducing energy barriers for novel water supply use in Sustainable Agriculture. 

The NRT focuses on the increasingly frequent and sometimes permanent water shortages for agriculture. This is a major concern because irrigated farms contribute to approximately half of U.S. crop sales, greater crop yields, reduced poverty, affordable food, and positive health and nutrition outcomes. In response, the NRT will fund the development of programs for students to explore transformative and globally relevant solutions to use unconventional water resources for agriculture by harnessing power from renewable energy and recovering energy-containing resources from “dirty” water.

A diverse set of specialties is needed for successful education and research developments. Therefore, the project will be directed by five UT professors, including four from the Cockrell School of Engineering. The principal investigator will be Charles Werth, professor in Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering; and the co-principal investigators are Alex Huang, professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering; Benjamin D. Leibowicz, assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering; Polina Sela, assistant professor in Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering; and David J. Eaton, professor in Natural Resource Policy Studies.

The project has three main goals: to develop and institutionalize a new model in STEM education that directly supports and informs research activities, professional development, and societal improvement; to develop transformative water solutions for agriculture through interdisciplinary research; and to enhance graduate student and workforce diversity.

To accomplish these goals, the NRT hopes to structure a new educational program comprised of five elements.

1) Students will have four core courses plus a food-energy-water systems (FEWS) seminar

2) Students will receive personalized professional development activities in communication, management, entrepreneurship, and job preparation

3) Dual-faculty and alumni mentoring

4) FEWS-relevant internships

5) Local public service

Dr. Benjamin D. Leibowicz leads by example in the Graduate Program in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, under the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He holds a courtesy appointment in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and supervises student research in the Energy and Earth Resources Graduate Program. Dr. Leibowicz’s primary research interests in energy systems, energy and climate policy analysis, sustainable cities, and technological change align with the NSF’s concerns over agricultural sustainability. To further qualify his capabilities as a co-principal investigator, Dr. Leibowicz instructs in an interdisciplinary fashion, incorporating diverse methodologies into his teachings.

The NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program anticipates to train a diverse set of thirty-six MS and PhD students with backgrounds in engineering, geosciences, and public affairs. Of these thirty-six students, eighteen will be funded trainees. The University of Texas at Austin will collaborate with Prairie View A&M University for field work and four minority-serving Texas institutions to enhance diversity.

Participating in the NRT Program emboldens an interdisciplinary STEM graduate education program at UT Austin with comprehensive traineeship models that are innovative, evidence-based, and aligned with changing workforce and research needs.