New solar panels on the roof of the Anderson Student Center are shown October 9, 2014.

Sustainable Communities Partnership Fosters Real-world Impact

It’s a classic question students pose: How am I going to use this in the real world? Thirty-seven courses that have worked with the St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) are providing students with an answer.

SCP is a two-year-old program within the Office of Sustainability Initiatives that develops partnerships with cities and government entities to integrate city-identified sustainability projects into existing St. Thomas courses across disciplines.

“Often, being in school, we get in this synthesized world where you think everything revolves around this campus. Working on a real-world problem has gotten me out and expanded my view of what this education is actually for,” said Will Goodwin, an economics major. His economics class last spring worked with the City of Delano to address potential energy savings. “We’re working on problems that are actually benefiting people every day.”

Delano is one of several partners that have worked with SCP; so far, the program has brought together courses from 18 different disciplines and tied into 40 different projects.

“To see the diversity of projects over time … it demonstrates the multidisciplinary nature of these problems that cities have,” said Maria Dahmus, Office of Sustainability Initiatives assistant director and the main coordinator of SCP.

Fitting together the puzzle pieces

Starting in fall 2015, Dahmus began seeking out cities and partners – specifically smaller cities and government entities with limited staffing – that needed help advancing their sustainability goals. SCP works with three or four partners at a time and, as the partners determine what their needs are, Dahmus works with them to find faculty who can adapt the projects into their course.

Part of SCP's dynamic capability is in its flexibility. Projects can have deliverables from just one unit during one semester, or they can last several semesters and have students build on prior work.

“We determine the project scope collaboratively with the partner and faculty. The idea is that these projects fit seamlessly into existing courses … to provide students an opportunity to apply what they’re learning to a city and experience what it’s like to be innovative problem-solvers, doing applied research that will be applied by the city,” Dahmus said. “It’s kind of like this big puzzle, moving pieces around and seeing how they can fit together to maximum benefit.”

With three semesters' worth of projects complete, the benefits are piling up, including in external recognition: The City of Elk River recently received the 2017 Outstanding City Partner Award from the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) Network. Elk River has been a partner with SCP from the beginning, and over a year and a half completed more than a dozen projects: St. Thomas engineering students designed a solar-powered picnic table; geographical information systems students executed a bike route analysis;  environmental problem-solving students designed a green roof; and conservation biology students examined how climate change is affecting the city’s trees.

“[SCP] has helped us achieve some initiatives that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish ourselves for years, if ever,” said Kristin Mroz, Elk River’s environmental technician and SCP partnership liaison. “Not only does the city gain valuable data and practical applications, but we also get to aid the next generation of university students in gaining real-world expertise. It’s a win-win, and we couldn’t be more honored for the opportunity.”

Along with Delano and Elk River, SCP also has partnered with Big Lake; Freshwater Society; Metropolitan Council; Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO); Projects Linking Art, Community and Environment; and Tiny Footprint Coffee. Projects have included a biology class exploring potential uses for coffee chaff, a byproduct of coffee roasting; a social work class helping the MSWO model a guide for outreach with culturally diverse populations; a communication journalism course developing marketing materials to recruit master water stewards; an environmental studies course conducting research on the urban tree canopy to inform the Metropolitan Council’s work; a psychology course researching how to create a better public park experience for community members of all ages; and a systems analysis and designs class creating an app for master water stewards.

“There is not a contribution that’s too small if it’s important for the city,” said Dahmus, who explained that one of the key components of building project plans is the partner showing faculty and students how the work will be implemented.

St. Thomas, of the community

Faculty and students who have engaged with SCP have gained a deeper appreciation for what their education can do in their communities, not just in the classroom.

“We’re learning more about what the issues are regionally and locally, and how can we plug ourselves into these as academics. And how can our students see these as real issues and their complexities?” said Camille George, associate dean of engineering. “It’s really part of our strategic mission to get our students thinking about global problems, local problems, more nuanced issues than just looking at something through a specific discipline lens.”

“It was interesting to be making a difference in the community, not just for a grade in the class,” said Ashley Brundrett, an environmental science major. “The real-life applications of these projects, we’re making a difference.”

The proof of that is all over: Last year, students from Monica Hartmann and Matthew Kim’s economic courses presented their research to Delano’s city council: They figured out how the city could save nearly $750,000 in energy over the next decade.

“[This is a] phenomenal thing of the future. When you look at what the cost savings are, from the initial investments, and you don’t even have to do it all at once, there’s huge value to this,” said Dale Graunke, mayor of Delano. “This is a program that could be ongoing throughout [St. Thomas] and it would be phenomenal.”

Graunke’s thoughts are already in action: The SCP is continuing to develop more projects for the upcoming year; has set its sights on expanding the number of students doing independent research on SCP projects; is developing an initiative to rally community discussion about sustainability through art; is expanding the number of partnerships on St. Thomas’ own campus; and is creating transferable tool kits for cities to use research findings from past projects.

“The world is bigger than St. Thomas. There are places out there that can really benefit from the things they’re learning in their classes. It really helped the students know that what they’re learning has those benefits, has that application,” said Kim, who along with Hartmann won the St. Thomas 2017 Curricular Innovation in Sustainability Award. “Educating students to think critically, act wisely and work skillfully – the Sustainable Communities Partnership really, really made my life a lot easier for incorporating those things into my course.”