Lehigh and Kazakh Universities Team Up for Sustainable Impact

Nada Stojanovic ’25, a computer engineering major at Lehigh, says last year’s Save Tuba team conducted focus groups with Kazakh teachers and students and the project received high marks from both.

Samir Hassan ’25, who is in the Computer Science and Business (CSB) program, uses a hypothetical student named “Sergey” to explain how school children can use the app to earn points and prizes after hitting milestones that teach habits of energy efficiency and pollution prevention.

“Sergey is on a journey to save the land and he can only do so by completing all six levels,” Hassan says. “Sergey will turn the faucet off to conserve water. Sergey will turn the lights off when leaving the room. Sergey will recycle more, all thanks to Tuba.”

Focusing on Air Quality in Almaty

Two other groups of Lehigh and Kazakh students are working on tackling the problems of air quality in Almaty. One is focusing on how to gauge the effects of air pollution on maternal health and adverse birth outcomes. The other is working on an app that will provide individualized plans for citizens who want to reduce their dangerous exposure to smog when it is at its most levels. Almaty has high levels of air pollution in part due to coal-burning power plants, traffic, and its location in a basin surrounded by mountains, according to Dinissa Duvanova, associate professor of international relations at Lehigh.

“It’s about as high as it gets in the world, similar to Beijing,” she says.

A native of Kazakhstan, Duvanova has been key to facilitating the partnerships and is Lehigh’s faculty mentor for the Almaty Air Quality Study team, which is working on the air quality app.

Lehigh students are learning about the complexities of encouraging other countries to clean up their environments without denying the inhabitants the ability to make a living and heat their homes.

“Calling for ceasing economic activity that produces negative health effects is not feasible and my students realize this,” Duvanova says. “But we cannot just sit and wait and watch people ruin their health over this.”

Niko Jones ’24, who is studying economics and political science, says the app the students are creating would let Almaty residents know when the city’s air quality is at its worst so they can make efforts to wear masks or stay indoors or take other measures. There are currently other apps that report on air quality but none that personalize the information for people with various conditions.

“We want to go a step further and learn from apps like Noom and Weight Watchers and Propeller, which have seen massive success over recent years in implementing these personalized recommendations to really improve users’ quality of life and in our case reduce their exposure to air pollution,” Jones says.

“These are things people can do right now before the transition to renewable energy happens,” says Duvanova, adding that the collaboration with students and faculty at AlmaU is vital to getting work done on the ground.

“They can do certain things that we cannot do from the US,” she says. “They can talk to people, they can identify the stakeholders.”

Kate Lyden ’24, an IDEAS major, says the group will survey app users to learn whether it is working effectively: “Are they wearing masks outside on certain days based on how bad the air quality is? Are there fewer hospitalizations? Are there fewer deaths?”

The project has been transformative for the Lehigh students, Duvanova says.

“You cannot imagine how excited the students were when they first met their student counterparts online in a zoom meeting,” she says. The projects have “changed the way they think about their place in society, in this country, in this world.”

Air quality is the focus of another group that launched a project to use Geospatial Information System (GIS) to document clusters of adverse birth outcomes with high levels of air pollution in parts of Kazakhstan. Pre-natal and post-natal exposure to air pollution and its long-term consequences for children has been a focus of the group’s mentor, epidemiologist Hyunok Choi, who joined Lehigh’s College of Health in 2020 and has conducted similar research in other former Soviet countries .

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