When Khanjan Mehta, vice provost of Creative Inquiry at Lehigh, met with faculty from universities in Kazakhstan three years ago to talk about how their students might collaborate in tackling real world problems, he knew what he didn’t want the venture to be.
It wouldn’t be American students and professors swooping into a developing country and telling their counterparts what to do. Rather, it would be faculty and students from Lehigh and Kazakhstan learning from each other and bringing their own strengths and perspectives to tackle some daunting challenges in the former Soviet republic.
“I traveled there for a week and I was really blown away by the quality of the students, the infrastructure, the aspiration,” Mehta says. “So we decided to explore some pathways and ways in which we could expand our work with the Global Social Impact Fellowship which had started just that year. We won a grant from the American Councils for International Education, which was all we needed to get going and explore further.”
Then the Covid pandemic hit in early 2020 and the students and faculty had to collaborate on the projects in remote meetings and online exchanges.
In May Lehigh students and faculty finally got to meet their Kazakh counterparts in person. The Lehigh contingent spent two weeks in Kazakhstan in meetings and site visits for projects on developing sustainable behaviors and air quality in the capital of Almaty. Members of the Lehigh group also met with Kazakh partners who had requested help in creating ethical guidelines for research as the Central Asian nation strives to transition to a knowledge-based economy.
Such aims are in keeping with the mission of Lehigh’s Office of Creative Inquiry, which was launched in January 2017 to help students and faculty pursue independent inquiry, take intellectual risks and collaborate on effecting positive, sustainable change. Mehta, who is also director of the Mountaintop Initiative at Lehigh, says the Kazakhstan collaboration is an opportunity for students to engage with a part of the world they know little about and to make a difference.
“This is not my grandmother’s service project,” he says. “They’re not just learning about the culture, they’re directly working with people on really, really important global problems. Air quality is not a Kazakh issue, it’s not an American issue, it’s a global issue.”
All the Lehigh students working on the projects take a one-credit workshop course co-taught by Mehta and Bill Whitney, administrative director of the Office of Creative Inquiry.
A Game App to Teach Recycling
Trevor Lachman ’25 is part of the project working with students at Almaty Management University, known as AlmaU, to make measurable progress on reducing waste. The team is creating a game app that teaches Kazakh schoolchildren the value of recycling and conservation. The project is known as “Save Tuba,” with Tuba being the group’s pet name for a Saiga antelope, which is native to the country and critically endangered.
“Right now in Kazakhstan, the recycling rate is incredibly low,” explains Lachman, a computer science major. “Behaviors start in children, so this is why we have focused on the behaviors in Almaty’s youth.”
Asked about schoolchildren’s access to the game, Lachman says about 81 percent of the population in Almaty has access to the internet and 64 percent have smartphones.