A group of University of Michigan Engineering students will travel to Cuba over Spring Break in order to put their prototypes and designs to work in Cuban industry. The 22 students, led by Prof. Brian Love, are going as a part of the University’s innovative “Design in a Resource-Constrained Environment” course.

In a short newsletter describing the objectives of the course, students wrote that the unique program will allow them to work with Cuban resources in the context of an import-export economy.

“This first-of-its-kind engineering program is exposing students to the natural and financial resources in Cuba as they are linked to its import/export economy, as well as the current state of opportunities in Cuban industrial development,” the letter read.

Love wrote in an email interview he chose Cuba as a destination site for the program because of his experience teaching seminars at the University of Havana, as well as the growing potential of STEM education in the country.

“After President Obama eased travel restrictions in December 2014, I sought to find faculty in Cuba with similar backgrounds and experiences to me,” Love wrote. “My casual email/phone exchanges led to my being invited to give seminars last summer at the University of Havana. That was what led to the ‘on the ground’ logistics to resolve whether a classroom experience on site could be proposed and pulled off … Moreover, STEM education in Cuba is alive and growing.”

Love noted that his students are looking to gain insight into how the Cuban economy functions, while noting new technologies and industry gaps. He added that many of his students attending speak fluent Spanish.

“A large fraction of engineering students in the program are bilingual in Spanish already and I think our Cuban counterparts are likely to impressed that a large fraction of the UM student ambassadors can communicate to them in their language,” Love said. “Our students are looking to observe the state of the art with regard to technology, industrial capacity and gaps. We also hope to gain insights on how the Cuban economy flourishes.”

Engineering junior Archit Gupta said the class has been preparing for the differences in the availability of resources between Cuba and the United States, as well as studying the different factors associated with solving engineering problems there. He further explained that the University offers numerous opportunities to make prototypes of designs, using technology not available in Cuba.

“We are focusing on prototyping and design challenges presented in a resource-constrained environment,” Gupta said. “We have been doing research on the social, economic and geographical factors associated with solving an engineering problem, and how these problems are solved differently in Cuba versus here in the states.”

Gupta described the differences in education styles between American and Cuban education systems, stating Cubans emphasize working on projects rather than focusing on creating models and pouring over planning. Because of the excess of resources, the group will visit science labs and medical centers, as well as other cultural centers.

“Some things we have learned are that there is more emphasis placed in learning theory compared to school here, whereas there is some emphasis placed in just doing it and getting your hands dirty, due to the excess in resources available,” Gupta said. “In Cuba, we are going to visit a solar farm, medical laboratory where there is some of the world’s most advanced lung cancer treatment, and explore cultural aspects of the country among other activities.”

Love explained that he hopes the trip is the first of many and that he can establish a collaborative link between research venues in Cuba and the University.

“Personally, I hope to establish UM as a viable collaborative venue for research, teaching and larger engagement with public and private enterprises in Cuba,” Love said. “Maybe there are opportunities to run other programs, and I hope to help faculty at UM and in Cuba build collaborative links.” 

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