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Ultraviolet Light Technology Group Seeks Student STEM Success

ARLINGTON, Va. – Though not as high profile as some of the national and  international scientific and engineering associations based in Washington, D.C., the  International Ultraviolet Association aims to build a critical environmental discipline while shining a bright light on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines and careers.

Since Sunday, the IUVA has been holding a conference in Arlington, Va., titled “Moving Forward: Sustainable UV Solutions to Meet Evolving Regulatory Challenges,” to bring its practitioners together and to consider the public policy challenges. Although the conference schedule has been filled with technical presentations, the significance of the conference goes beyond learning about technological developments.

“This program that we’re hosting today is a clear development of what we’re trying to do. Our mission is to create not just visibility within the discipline, but to bring in the everyday person that might not understand UV technology and to educate the population of students who are unaware of this particular discipline within the engineering community,” said IUVA Executive Director Deborah Martinez.

Ultraviolet light has a number of applications, but is primarily used to disinfect water, wastewater and air. The technology can be scaled to create anything from personal, travel-sized water filters to systems that purify water for an entire city. 

Paul Swaim, the president of IUVA, stated “it’s effective and it’s chemical free. For a long time we’ve relied on chemicals to do that work, or we’ve simply not disinfected, but that’s not as effective as UV light.”

Swaim cited an outbreak of the Cryptosporidium pathogen in 1993. This pathogen, which is easily inactivated by UV light treatment, contaminated the water at a Milwaukee area water purification plant. Over a two-week period, the pathogen infected about 403,000 of the 1.61 million residents and killed more than 100. According to Swaim, “UV technology makes the world a safer place.”

Despite the importance of UV technology, it is still relatively unknown compared to other engineering subfields. This awareness problem is compounded by a low rate of students pursuing STEM careers in general. This is a problem IUVA Executive Director Martinez is attempting to tackle.

Although Martinez had not worked in the UV technology field prior to joining IUVA one year ago, she did have an extensive background in running nonprofit organizations and in education. As a result, she placed an emphasis on increasing UV technology awareness and developing an educational component for the association, something the IUVA had never focused on before.

Swaim said of Martinez, “She brought a lot to the table. She had a whole lot of ideas we felt would push the envelope of what we were trying to do into new areas.”

In her short time with IUVA, Martinez has worked to create an educational strategic initiative to reach out to colleges and high schools. IUVA has since created a partnership with Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine and a partnership with NASA to create Space Science Days with a UV technology component for high school students. Now, IUVA is working to implement a number of new approaches, including scholarships and grants.

“This will allow us to build a better, stronger network of young students that will allow us to build an even better, stronger network of people that are joining our organization,” Swaim said.

Dr. Joel Ducoste, a professor in the Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering Department at North Carolina State University and a IUVA board member, emphasized the importance of the conference. In regard to raising awareness among students and within the engineering field, he said, “the only way you do it is by having these conventions and creating a strong portal to get the technology out there.”

Ducoste explained that, in order to promote the field of UV technology, the STEM fields and underrepresented minorities in general must also be addressed.

“It has to start all the way in the first through sixth grade,” Ducoste said. “We have to catch them early, and we have to get them excited.”

“If you get them excited early,” he added, “that can provide the momentum students need to carry them through some of the more difficult topics they’ll face in high school.”

An underrepresented minority himself, Ducoste added, “This goes double for underrepresented groups. … Every day I look out into the audience when I teach a class and I don’t see myself out there too often.”

Dr. Karl Linden, Associate Director of the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado-Boulder and IUVA president-elect, said, “We need to break down the barriers and say that everyone’s welcome. Everyone’s able to be successful if they have the opportunity. It’s about spending the time and effort—and it’s not that much more effort. It’s just showing an interest.”

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