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International Students Take Center Stage at Milwaukee Water Summit

The United States is hosting WetskillsWater Challenges, an international student competition focused on global water issues, for the first time. And it’s happening here in Milwaukee.

Today, the students will pitch their ideas to professionals at the 8th Annual Water Summit at the Pfister Hotel.

Johan Oost, from the Netherlands, helped create Wetskills five years ago.

“A guy in the Dutch water sector came to me and said I’ve got a room and a time slot for you during the World Expo; I want you to do something with Dutch and Chinese students.  Now it’s a really nice program, fitting in a lot of countries,” Oost says.

To date, 250 students have participated in Wetskills.

Oost assigns each team of students a water-related challenge that a partnering business or organization faces. The partners help fund the program.

“And we ask the companies to give input everyday so that they really use the experience of the companies during the whole challenge,” Oost says.

He says learning to operate as a team requires work and play.

“We went to the Milwaukee Brewers. We also had a picnic on the parking area. Being a team (means) coming close to together. This kind of social activity is a must,” Oost says.

While in Milwaukee, the students spent part of their time preparing at the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences.

Credit S Bence
Jessica De Koning is part of Case 4: Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland

Team number 4 is taking the challenge of a Dutch water authority. It hopes to come up with a way to stop owners of greenhouses from dumping pollutants into canals and ditches.

“We’re a little bit stuck, but I think it will work out in the end,” says grad student Jessica De Koning.

She says she’s been assigned plenty of group projects back in the Netherlands where she studies water science and management.  

“This is different because we have an actual case from an actual problem that is happening in the Netherlands, so they really need a solution.  So this is really more motivating and satisfying to have a solution in the end,” De Koning says.

The Wetskills challenge for another team is to design a marketing strategy that would entice wastewater treatment plants to buy ultraviolet reactors from the company BersonUV.

Credit Jantienne Van der Meij-Kranendonk
Matthew Bolter (back ctr) is one of 3 Wisconsin students chosen to participate in Wetskills. Its founders says work and play, such as this visit to Madison, forms creative, strong teams.

Matthew Bolter is a senior at UW-Whitewater, polishing off degrees in international business and Chinese.

“Our team actually has a name, other than just the team number. Because it’s BersonUV and because we’re all boys, we call ourselves the Berson Boys,” Bolter says.

While the team may have easily come up with a name for itself, developing a global marketing strategy is tougher. 

Erwin Vonk of the Netherlands understands the challenge. He was part of the first Wetskills crew and now helps supervise the program.

“It’s unbelievable what you can learn in just a matter of two weeks – things like how to pitch, how to create a poster that really attracts people, how to cooperate, how to deal with culture differences,” Vonk says.

He remembers waves of excitement, then terror when it came time to present to a crowd of strangers.

“But in those two minutes, I had the feeling that I got in touch with the audience, people smiling and we had some great talks with the delegation afterward,” Vonk says.

Credit S Bence
Wetskills co-founder Johan Oost (left) and supervisor Erwin Vonk puzzle over a technological challenge.

Vonk feels compelled to share the full story. “Our team did not win the first prize,” he admits.

Wetskills co-founder Johan Oost says winning, and the iPad mini that comes with it is merely a bonus.

He believes what the world gets are globally-minded water leaders. “Water does not know borders, only people do,” Oost says.

The water world seems to be taking notice.

For example, Canadian researchers will test one team’s small-scale wastewater treatment design, while another won $15,000 for its strategy to monitor wastewater discharged from mines.

UPDATE - On June 24 the team of which UW-Whitewater senior Matthew Menson was a part ranked number one in the Wetskills challenge in Milwaukee.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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