Driving environmental awareness: Engineering student recognized for work on EcoCar, youth movement

Elizabeth Gierl is among five engineering students being awarded the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award

Matthew Menzies - 27 May 2019

(Edmonton) Elizabeth Gierl is driving environmentalism and green solutions with her work on the University of Alberta's EcoCar and her own start-up, The Green Medium.

She has been awarded the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award for her exceptional contributions to society, both technologically and socially.

Gierl has just completed her fourth year of studies in her electrical engineering undergraduate degree. She has always placed the utmost importance on her responsibility to be a custodian of the environment.

"A small amoeba can't think about what's happening for it in the future," she said. "Humans are one of the few species that can cognitively predict the future. With that kind of capability, it's our responsibility to address climate change because we're the only organism that can really look at the problem, see it for what it is, and be able to change it."

It was this sense of responsibility to find solutions that drove Gierl to start her education as an engineer.

"I was really interested in trying to become a better problem-solver, and to try to learn problem-solving skills," Gierl said. "I think that's one thing that an engineering degree teaches you."

Gierl would soon be applying these problem-solving skills to the incredibly complex task of constructing hydrogen fuel cells for the EcoCar team, which then applies the technology to full-size vehicles they bring to international competitions.

And even though the team has a stellar record-this year it took first place in the Shell Eco-Marathon Americas competition by hitting an energy equivalency of more than 1,800 MPG -winning isn't the purpose.

"The reason that we're trying to build this car is to show that these technologies are not as far away as we think they are. We often think of these technologies as something that will be implemented far in the future and are crazy complex and completely sci-fi."

She notes that by demonstrating that undergraduate engineering students can build a zero-emissions vehicle, people will come to accept and support these technologies as a part of our collective future.

"My time at EcoCar has showed me that there are many exceptional engineering students who are committed to their communities and their work," Gierl said. "I feel extremely honoured to have been selected for this award and will continue to strive to give myself as fully and as thoughtfully as my mentors on EcoCar did."

Gierl is committed to communicating and spreading awareness of environmental issues and solutions and is co-founder and lead editor of The Green Medium, an award-winning environmental blog written by youth contributors.

"We're trying to challenge youth to write about the environment," she said of The Green Medium. "We thought that it would be a good way for people to put it in their own hands and to think about the environment in the way that they are most interested in."

She says The Green Medium was created with the goal to provide a space for youth to engage with environmental issues. More than that, however, Gierl says it provides the impetus for youth to begin "taking themselves seriously and looking at themselves as an important factor in this equation: to see themselves as an important voice."

The William Muir Edwards Citizenship Awards are made possible by the generosity of the David Morris Family Foundation. Gierl plans to use the funding from the William Muir Edwards Citizenship Award to continue to learn and develop as an engineer.

"I hope to spend some time consolidating, reviewing, and expanding my electrical engineering knowledge and skill sets," she said. "Ideally, I would like to take two to four months to fill in some gaps that I feel I missed or didn't see in my degree, as well as reviewing the skills and classes that I found especially valuable throughout my degree."

Beyond continuing her learning, Gierl may apply the funding to supporting herself as she develops green technologies.

"These funds will support the kind of review work I would like to do," she said, "as well as going towards either a master's program, or to support myself while I further explore the clean energy start-up sector in Canada."

Through her ground-breaking work with the EcoCar team and her development and management of her own youth-empowerment movement, Elizabeth Gierl is going to extraordinary lengths to make the world a better place.