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Empowering the Next Wave of Sustainability Leaders

Society’s most critical natural resources are increasingly strained as global population spikes and industrialization increases at an unsustainable rate. Water, one of the most basic necessities of human life, is becoming scarce as supplies dwindle while demand increases. Some experts predict that water scarcity could impact as much as three quarters of our population – or 6.9 billion people – by 2050. In addition, as globalization presses forward, energy consumption, intrinsically linked to water consumption, will continue to escalate.

In the face of such major global challenges, we need a fresh approach in order to achieve needed solutions. The days of working in silos to address global problems are in the past. Instead, if we’re going to achieve tangible improvement, we must strive for sincere, open collaboration from all corners of the world. This is the only way we will accelerate progress towards more efficient solutions.

One way we can foster meaningful collaborations is through committing to academic engagements that help provide opportunities for the world’s brightest university students to bring their fresh thinking to the forefront. Investing in the next generation of global sustainability leaders is not only everybody’s responsibility, but also in the best interest of society.

Collaborations – including those with university partners – help increase the pace at which world challenges are solved. They also provide emerging scientists and leaders with valuable, real-world experience and expose them to the responsibility of balancing the needs of our evolving population with the duty of protecting our planet.

When students see their work applied outside the lab – in real-world applications that are addressing profound issues – their passion becomes more tangible. They experience first-hand the difference they can make through their work and research. And as society develops at an unsustainable rate, they can more clearly see that the opportunities to make a difference with their thinking, and their work, are as endless as the need.

Through programs like Dow’s Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards, which we launched in 2009, students across the globe are encouraged and recognized for helping to solve pressing social, economic and environmental challenges. The program promotes forward thinking in social and environmental responsibility by leveraging Dow partnerships with leading universities worldwide – including The University of California – Berkeley, The University of Cambridge, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), The University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Peking University, The University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University. Throughout the academic year, students work on thesis-like projects to sustainability-related challenges.

These types of university partnerships aren’t for show – they play an important role in achieving breakthroughs. Take the WaterWheel for example, an innovative technology University of Michigan students developed as part of the 2010 program, which has transformed into Wello, a meaningful hybrid social venture that’s addressing water needs in the developing world. Traditionally, inhabitants of water-starved regions can spend more than five hours a day walking to fetch clean water, which they typically carry back to their families in buckets on their heads. This method poses a variety of problems, including a host of physical burdens, in return for a relatively small amount of potable water. In comparison, the WaterWheel makes water transport more efficient and less labor intensive by enabling easier collection of 20 gallons of water – five times the amount collected using traditional methods.

Another innovative solution brought forth through the 2010 program came from Jon Servaites from Northwestern University. While working towards his doctorate in materials science and engineering, Servaites leveraged the opportunity to take his interest in next generation solar energy technologies to new heights. Servaites founded S2E Solar, a company that sells affordable components used to produce high-efficiency solar shingles for rooftop electricity generation.

Partnering with academic institutions and supporting the world’s next generation of socially responsible science, business and government leaders is vital for immediate and long-term prosperity. Industry and other stakeholders should collaborate with universities to advance sustainable chemistry by supporting research, developing green chemistry curriculum, sharing technical expertise, and offering internships and endowments.

While many of these initiatives are targeted at college or graduate students, there’s also value in exciting students about the power of chemistry at an early age. As part of our 2011 global partnership of the United Nations-designated International Year of Chemistry, Dow is working with organizations worldwide to bring together students, teachers and communities to celebrate chemistry and advance science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in today’s grade schools.

Our global population doubled over the last century and continues to expand, requiring new demands of the planet. While chemistry holds solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, like drinkable water and affordable energy, it’s only through collaboration and shared commitment to empowering future sustainability leaders that we can unlock our greatest potential, and more rapidly deliver life-changing solutions to global communities.

Neil Hawkins is vice president of sustainability and environment, health and safety (EHS) at The Dow Chemical Company.

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