Jason Wang is learning leadership skills alongside his engineering program

FAR AND WIDE: Jason Wang is learning leadership skills that will help him bring renewable energy solutions to hard-to-reach locations.

(EDMONTON) As a child, Jason Wang was dazzled by the control panels and humming equipment that featured prominently in the lab where his father, an oil sands researcher, worked. By high school, Wang had set his sights on designing renewable technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels.

But after his first year of mechanical engineering at the U of A's Faculty of Engineering, Wang discovered that building new energy sources wouldn’t be enough to help communities that need them.

“I wanted to be a part of engineering organizations that implement alternative energy projects,” Wang said. Shifting from design to implementation, he joined a research project in Pangnirtung, on Nunavut’s Baffin Island. It’s a community whose power relies almost entirely on deisel generators, the fuel for which the hamlet imports by sea, in tankers. The shipping season can be disrupted by unpredictable melts and freeze-ups, made worse by climate change. In 2015, the community declared a state of emergency after fire destroyed several of its generators.

"I saw how the community struggled with this uncertainty,” said Wang, 22. “The engineer in me said, ‘What can we do to fix this? How can we help them fix it themselves?’”

Wang knew he’d need to complement his engineering studies with an understanding of the social issues facing communities such as Pangnirtung. And if he had any hope of making renewable energy sources accessible and affordable in remote areas, he’d need the skills of a leader—which he could hone while completing his engineering degree.   

“Engineering attracts leaders because of the profession's goals to be honest and diligent, to serve and to build society and the environment,” Wang said.

In 2015, Wang joined the first cohort of students at the University of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College. The college’s two-year Certificate in Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies starts with the premise that leadership can be taught. Undergraduates in Wang’s cohort in the program have come from most faculties.

Named for former premier of Alberta Peter Lougheed, ’51 BA, ’52 LLB, ’86 LLD (Honorary), the college’s permanent home, Peter Lougheed Hall, officially opened on June 6. The five-storey building, overlooking the North Saskatchewan River on the University of Alberta’s North Campus, includes places for meetings and special presentations, as well as living areas for students and visiting experts. It provides the physical space and for Wang and his leadership cohort to learn together.

Teamwork was one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the program for Wang. He learned that effectively leading in a team does not mean being bossy. “It means being flexible to the needs of the team,” he said, “and setting it up to be self-sufficient.”

He put that theory of self-sufficiency to work in his role in the leadership of the EcoCar team at the Faculty of Engineering, designing and building hydrogen-powered vehicles. Last spring, as Wang and his colleagues scrambled to ready their car for its public unveiling, a first-year club member stepped forward with plans to ramp up the event with media and advertising.

“We let her run with it. We believed in her and she pulled off an incredible event—around 2,000 students showed up. She used the momentum to fundraise more than $10,000 for EcoCar,” Wang said. “I realized that if you set up a team right, as a leader you should feel like you're not really doing anything—but in a good way.”

It’s a skill he’s hoping to apply to help bring renewable energy sources to places like Pangnirtung. “Energy and climate change need people-driven solutions. We have to work together as communities,” he said. “I hope my biggest contribution will be to inspire people and make them excited about what’s to come.”