CECILIA PAREDES

Ecuador 2020 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

With programs that have students working with NGOs and SMEs and a new incubator to solve the Guayaquil region's problems, ESPOL is climbing down from the STEM ivory tower.

Cecilia Paredes
BIOGRAPHY

Cecilia Paredes is the Rector of ESPOL. She has a master's degree and doctorate in sciences and engineering of materials from Rutgers University. Prior to her current position, she was associate dean of the college of mechanical engineering and production sciences, director of the center for research and development of nanotechnology, director of the materials testing laboratory, and vice president of ESPOL. She has conducted R&D with other institutions, like MIPRO, the Catholic University of Leuven, and Northwestern University. She presided the Latin-American and Caribbean Consortium of Engineering Institutions (LACCEI).

How is ESPOL adapting its teaching methods in order for students to acquire practical skills?

ESPOL started reflecting on how students were being prepared for an ever-changing world and what their role in it will be. In an environment where the only constant is change, graduates need abilities to stand out, so we focused our efforts on taking crucial abilities such as communication, critical thinking, teamwork, leadership, entrepreneurship, and ethics to the next level. Additionally, 70% of our programs are related to science and technology, which enables us to teach our students how to use them in order to solve real challenges using tools such as big data. ESPOL stands out from other public universities in Ecuador, as it is the only one that maintains English as a subject. We have a high retention rate, close to 90% in the first year. Our teaching is in line with international standards, and six programs have accreditation by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which evaluates science and engineering programs. In 2019, we aim to have 13 accredited programs, and we want to have all our programs accredited by different organizations in the next five years. ESPOL also seeks to take teaching out of the classroom, involving students in projects to work with NGOs and SMEs. The feedback we have received from NGOs has been extremely encouraging, noting our students are able to make a difference.

To what extent is research at ESPOL aligned with the development of agriculture as a strategic sector?

ESPOL started conducting its own research 25 years ago. When the institution was created more than 60 years ago, its purpose was to solve the problems of the region and city. The city where we are based, Guayaquil, is a port city acting as a trade center for Ecuador and the Pacific coast of South America, with strong activity in agricultural exports. ESPOL works closely with companies to identify challenges; we ask them not only what they need now, but 10 years from now, so that we can align our research and the teaching of our students with future needs. Our current research is moving more into technology applied to different sectors. ESPOL is home to different research centers focused on fields such as agricultural biotechnology, information technologies, and robotics. With this mindset, we are one of the leading institutions in conducting research on the virus potentially affecting banana plantations. We have a project with two Californian universities, Berkeley, and UC Davis, to create a virus-resistant banana. Bananas constitute 35% of the agricultural GDP and some USD2.5 billion in exports. Likewise, we have worked on shrimp and cocoa, which are also Ecuador's top exports.

How are you contributing to entrepreneurship and innovation in Guayaquil?

With the support of the city council, we started the Distrito 100 project. The city administration has launched ambitious projects in technological development and innovation to solve the city's issues, though the purpose was to locally create those solutions by taking advantage of our human talent. Distrito 100 came to fill that gap. It is a space where students create projects, obtain investments, and produce knowledge. It is located strategically in the heart of Guayaquil, next to the financial sector and government facilities. It is expected to become the first space in Ecuador where STEAM education is developed. The building is designed in a way that leaves the first floor open, inviting people to come and experience science. The second floor will host IoT and big data labs, and there will be co-working spaces next to anchor companies so there can be knowledge exchange. It will be inaugurated over the course of 2020 on the occasion of the bicentenary of Guayaquil, marking the path of the city's march toward the technological era.