New U.Va. Partnership Encourages Exchange of Ideas in South Africa

Sept. 7, 2007 — The best partnerships offer the promise of mutual benefit and growth. That's exactly the kind of alliance now forming among U.Va's School of Engineering and Applied Science, Canadian transportation giant Bombardier Inc. and several universities throughout the U.S. and South Africa.

"The goal of the collaboration with Bombardier and a handful of universities here and abroad is to provide a better-educated workforce for industries moving into South Africa," said James H. Aylor, dean of U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, "while giving students in the U.S. and South Africa an opportunity to interact with each other."

Partners of the ambitious collaboration include the Engineering School at the University of Virginia; Carnegie Mellon; the University of Pittsburgh; the South African universities of Capetown, Pretoria, Limpopo, Venda and Witwatersrand; and Canada's Bombardier.

Targeting education, training and research, the South African-American mentoring partnership's strategy is four-fold: assistance to South African classrooms from secondary to post-graduate levels; integrating students into service-learning projects; training rail transportation workers; and providing incentives for start-up engineering, science and technology businesses. The full program is expected to be up and running by March. While specific roles for each university and for Bombardier have yet to be decided, the alliance is intended to exchange technical know-how, commercial interests and student involvement between the American and South African partners.

"I can see us exchanging students and faculty and ultimately providing course material — either in electronic format or short courses — then bringing grad students here," said Aylor. "This is a chance to offer assistance and collaborate with universities. The corporate presence adds a third force, in that they may take on interns and help in other ways."

The project came about as a result of Bombardier's contract to build a rail line from Johannesburg to Pretoria. Slated for completion in time for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, the 50-mile line will highlight a "rail sector center of competence that reflects Bombardier’s commitment to developing the South African rail industry, a strategy of which the corporate/educational alliance forms part,” said Michael Fetsko, a U.Va. alumnus and the company's vice president of project management.

That center will focus academic involvement on research and development, implement skills training, build educational capacity from the graduate level down and cultivate suppliers in the region. Crucial specifically to U.Va's participation, Fetsko said, are his former classmate, environmental science professor and South African expert Bob Swap, lending advice about economic initiatives in developing countries, and Bob Petchel, a former U.Va. assistant football coach and currently a business consultant raising funds for the South African partnership.

The academic and corporate forces behind this initiative should energize not only this exercise in what Fetsko terms "sustainable transportation," but also South Africa's financial prospects in general. While the United Nations ranks South Africa 24th in the world in terms of gross domestic product and deems it one of the continent's most economically viable countries, many of its citizens still struggle; The Economist magazine rates South Africa 92nd out of 111 in its Worldwide Quality-of-Life Index. The nation's shortage of engineers, technicians and information technology workers is acute; characteristic of developing nations, it generates only 10 percent of its growth through scientific and technological discoveries, while industrialized countries typically generate as much as 70 percent.

"South Africa is a developing hot spot for transportation right now," Fetsko said, "and we're very much hoping this partnership can pull in other corporations, academic institutions and government institutions."

As tunneling, excavation and road-clearing is even at present underway for the rail line, Fetsko envisions a future wherein South African engineers significantly expand the ranks of the nation's rail industry and become "vital members of the science, technology and engineering community internationally."

Aylor shares Fetsko's enthusiasm: "In an increasingly global economy, it is our responsibility to help each other — with materials, knowledge and labor. Everyone benefits from the exchange of ideas and perspectives, and I am very pleased that we are involved in this venture."     

— Paul Evans