Merging Research and Design

By Ashley Babbitt, public relations specialist, College of Architecture + Planning. Originally posted on July 3, 2017.

The University of Utah recently approved the creation of the Center for Ecological Planning and Design. The new center merges the provisional Ecological Planning Center and the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center — both in the College of Architecture + Planning — in a new partnership with the Global Change and Sustainability Center. The Center for Ecological Planning and Design is positioned to bridge the gaps between research and the design and planning fields, both within CA+P and across campus, with a focus on the built environment and the human communities that inhabit it.

Sarah Hinners, director for the provisional Ecological Planning Center, answers questions about the new center:

Tell us about the significance of the work of the new research center?

The built environment refers to buildings, roads, parking lots, etc. — all that stuff that humans build for ourselves to make life easier, safer and more comfortable or convenient. Cities are dominated by the built environment and it is becoming more and more the dominant habitat of humanity worldwide. But our environments are not always a healthy and life-enhancing and can be vulnerable to environmental changes and disasters. The built environment affects people’s lives and in turn, human communities shape and influence the built environment.

At the center, we’re focused on bringing together the people who study the built environment, such as scientists, social scientists and engineers, with the people who plan, design and build it. We have most of these disciplines represented here on campus, but they are widely dispersed among multiple colleges and dozens of departments. We’re interested in bringing these experts from across campus and outside of academia together to generate ideas and knowledge, ultimately to build better places for humans.

How will this center allow the college to collaborate in new ways?

There are challenges to interdisciplinary work. People in different disciplines and in different colleges on campus don’t necessarily speak the same language and it can be difficult to work with others without the feeling of stepping on toes or coming into competition with one another. There is a tremendous opportunity, one that is so often missed, to build collaborations and this potentially has the power to transform the way cities and communities take shape. The center is intended to build bridges between departments in the College of Architecture + Planning and across campus. By working under the umbrella of the Global Change and Sustainability Center, we offer a place to collaborate on disciplinary neutral ground — a place where people interested in resilient communities and built environments can meet in the middle and do great things together.

What types of research will emerge from this center?

We anticipate building a research portfolio of collaborative solutions for cities, including sustainable and resilient infrastructure systems, highly functional and beautiful urban ecosystems, strong inclusive communities and equitable access to a high quality of life in cities.

 Who are the key participants and collaborators of the center?

The center started out as the Ecological Planning Center, established as a provisional center in 2012 and funded with a donation from the Swaner family. As we grew, we came to understand just how interdisciplinary this work needed to be. A bunch of pieces fell into place within the past year that really opened important doors for us. One was an opportunity to join forces with the Integrated Technology in Architecture Center that has been doing research on the ecology of construction practices and building materials for a long time. The second was a desire, with the Global Change and Sustainability Center, to coalesce some of its expertise into a smaller number of topical themes, one of them being the built environment and communities.

In addition to myself, the new center includes Diane Pataki, associate professor of biology, and Ryan Smith, director of Integrated Technology in Architecture Center. The steering committee also includes members from city and metropolitan planning, parks recreation and tourism, mechanical engineering, biology, geology and geophysics, environment and sustainability studies, the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Law School and a member of the local planning professional community.

How can a person get involved?

We’d love to engage with anyone who is interested in these topics through collaborative interdisciplinary research, education, events and symposia. One opportunity is to get involved with our work associated with Red Butte Creek here on campus. We have been working on a plan for revitalization of the U’s portion of the creek and the intent is to create a hub for implementation of the plan as well as the development of research and education programs associated with Red Butte Creek.

Our website: cepd.utah.edu
Contact Sarah Hinners: sarah.hinners@utah.edu

Sustainable Sanitary Pads

Originally posted on May 29, 2017.

By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, University of Utah College of Engineering

Each year, nearly 20 billion sanitary pads, tampons and applicators are dumped into North American landfills every year, and it takes centuries for them to biodegrade inside plastic bags, according to a 2016 Harvard Business School report. Additionally, it requires high amounts of fossil fuel energy to produce the plastic for these products, resulting in a large carbon footprint.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ashlea Patterson

The SHERO Pad, developed by a team of University of Utah materials science and engineering students, is a new feminine hygiene pad that is 100 percent biodegradable and made from all natural materials. It consists of four layers and can break down in as little as 45 days.

But a team of students led by University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor (lecturer) Jeff Bates has developed a new, 100-percent biodegradable feminine maxi pad that is made of all natural materials and is much thinner and more comfortable than other similar products.

The SHERO Pad uses a processed form of algae as its super-absorbent ingredient, which is then covered with cotton and the same material that makes up tea bags. The result is a maxi pad that is effective, comfortable to wear and can break down anywhere from 45 days to six months.

“This is novel in comparison to other biodegradable options out there for pads,” said Amber Barron, a University of Utah junior in materials science and engineering who is on the team of four students. “Most are really bulky because they don’t have a superabsorbent layer.”

The need for something like the SHERO Pad originally came from SHEVA, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and girls in Guatemala, which turned to Bates because it was looking for a sustainable solution for feminine hygiene waste. One of Bates’ area of research is in hydrogels, which are water-absorbing polymers.

“In Guatemala, there’s no public sanitation system. All the rivers are black because they are so polluted,” Bates says. “So there really is a genuine need for people in Guatemala to have biodegradable options.”

Part of Bates’ solution came one night while feeding his 5-year-old daughter.

“One day we were eating dinner with white rice, and my daughter spilled it all over the floor,” he says about that night two years ago. “The next morning, when I was cleaning it up, it was all dry and crusted. I drove to work and thought, ‘What was it about rice that does that?’”

That question of how rice hydrates and dehydrates began a two-year process of searching for the right natural materials for the feminine pad, which included testing with different leaves, such as banana leaves, and forms of cotton.

Bates, Barron and the rest of the team — which includes sophomore students, Sarai Patterson, Ashlea Patterson and Ali Dibble — ultimately developed the SHERO Pad, which is made up of four layers: An outer layer of raw cotton similar to a tea bag to repel liquid, a transfer layer of organic cotton to absorb the liquid and pull it from the outer layer, the super-absorbent layer made of agarose gel (a polymer from brown algae), and a final layer made of a corn-based material that keeps the moisture inside and prevents leakage.

While there are other similar sustainable feminine pads on the market today, they either use a hydrogel that is not 100 percent biodegradable or they use thicker layers of natural cotton that are uncomfortable to wear, Barron says. Another advantage to the SHERO Pad is that it can easily be manufactured in smaller villages using locally sourced materials and without sophisticated tools, just common presses and grinding stones, Bates says.

While the team originally developed the SHERO Pad for users in developing countries such as Guatemala, Bates and the students also will start selling the product in the U.S. for environmentally conscious women. A working prototype has been produced, and they have launched a startup company based in Bountiful, Utah. They hope to have products in Guatemala and on U.S. store shelves within a year.

Crunching Numbers

 

Steve Burian at the Sustainability Faculty Learning Community. Photo: Jonathan Duncan.

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Steven Burian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah. He is also the Project Director of the USAID funded U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water at the University of Utah. His research is focused on the planning and engineering of sustainable and resilient urban water resource systems.

Burian was one of the folks who developed and initiated the Wasatch Experience at the University of Utah. In April 2017, Burian shared how he integrates sustainability into his courses at the interdisciplinary Sustainability Faculty Learning Community, a joint initiative of the Sustainability Office and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

I sat down with Burian after his presentation to discuss current projects, teaching strategies, and what the Wasatch Experience has to do with it. 

You were a part of the group effort to bring the Wasatch Experience to the University of Utah. What inspired that initiative?

The short answer: Myron Willson. [Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer].

Dan McCool, a professor of political science, and myself were working as co-directors of sustainability curriculum development. As part of that charge, we were developing sustainability programs on campus that would be broadly applicable to any student. The programs had to be for any student, sustainable, and would last—which is very difficult to do at a university. Each year we did something different; develop the undergraduate certificate one year, the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability another year, and then we did the Wasatch Experience.

About 6-7 years ago, Myron was telling Dan and I about two programs. He kept pointing us to the Piedmont Project at Emory University, a teaching workshop for faculty. The content was taught through active learning to develop curriculum teaching materials with the help of experts in sustainability. Some universities were using that approach, but not really any other universities of our size at the time. But Myron urged us to consider what the Piedmont Project was doing. So, we did, and the first Wasatch Experience was born.

What impacts have you seen the Wasatch Experience having on campus?

I think it gets instructors focused on how they bring sustainability into the classroom in a meaningful way, which is not easy to do. It has moved past just talking or reading about sustainability in an assignment to a more pedagogical approach to incorporating sustainability.  Faculty are already teaching. The Wasatch Experience is a way to amplify what they are already doing. It’s not really about adding more sustainability courses, rather about adding better sustainability instruction to campus.

I enjoyed your discussion of using an ethics approach to incorporate sustainability in the classroom during your presentation. Could you speak a little bit to how you personally incorporate sustainability into your civil engineering courses?

I do it in a cyclical way. I provide the students motivation to act on the issue, set the structure, have them do quantitative work, and then come back and discuss.

I try to get students motivated with some fundamentally ethical responsibility either environmental, social, economic, or all three. That is the entry point. After I provide the ethical motivation, I contextualize it. I say: “Okay, this is why we are doing it, but this now is how we are going to do this.”

Integrating the sustainability issue into the concepts you are covering in class is critical. When you don’t, the majority of students will say, “oh well, that was a waste of my time because he is just teaching me something from the humanities or social sciences, and I already had that class.” So, I move quickly into what the sustainability topic means from the civil engineering perspective, and get them crunching numbers, because crunching numbers is what they want to do in almost all cases.

After they crunch those numbers, they want to come back and talk about it. That is when I bring out the discussion about sustainability and ethics. I rarely ever just talk about the ethical issues or things without having gone through this cycle. I found if I do then it becomes an opinionated discussion, and not as effective as it could be. After contextualizing an ethical or sustainable issue in civil engineering design, and doing some quantitative work, the students are armed with a better perspective of how it fits in civil engineering practice.

Have you found any surprising connections or other notable connections to sustainability through this process?

The part that is always the most surprising to me is the social sphere of sustainability. The economic and environmental spheres I know pretty well, and I get a feeling for what’s needed in practice, from a personal standpoint, and a philosophical worldview standpoint. But the social part is where I always struggle, because I don’t know it. When I prepare for a lesson I try to learn a little bit more about the social side of some issues or topics.

How do you know when you have successfully incorporated sustainability into your courses?

While there are many sustainability literacy assessments, none really fit into what we are covering in civil engineering, so I created my own quiz that measures student’s sustainability learning; a Civil Engineering Sustainability Literacy Assessment. The assessment is very quantitative. I measure student learning of sustainability, their attitude change towards sustainability, and their affinity for sustainability.

If or how has the Wasatch Experience impacted your teaching?

It hasn’t changed the topics I cover, but it has made me much more intentional about the things I am doing and reflective on what has worked in my teaching, and what hasn’t. It has made me be more reflective and think at a more cognitive level. I have become more of a technician for pedagogical methods following some of the things that were included in the Wasatch Experience. If I am training others on the best instructional strategies for helping people integrate and effectively teach sustainability, I need to make sure I have all those concepts down. This process may just have been my maturation as an educator, but I do think the Wasatch Experience had a lot to do with it.

Do you have any advice for faculty members or teaching assistants who want to start incorporating sustainability into their courses?

The best thing to do is to get a mentor. Not to have someone assigned to you, but to take the initiative and seek someone out. Look for someone who is good at teaching, and has a behind-the-scenes understanding of what they are doing in the classroom. Find someone who has been in it and done it for a while and then just ask them questions. You will learn so much from that mentoring experience.

Animating Sustainability

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

Lien Fan Shen is an Associate Professor in the Film & Media Arts Department at the University of Utah. She has published five manga (Japanese-styled graphic novels) in Taiwan, was awarded The Best Romantic Comic in Taiwan, and has won several international awards for her animation. Shen participated in the Wasatch Experience in 2015, and last month shared how she integrates sustainability into her courses at the interdisciplinary Sustainability Faculty Learning Community, a joint initiative of the Sustainability Office and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

I sat down with Lien after her presentation to discuss current projects, teaching strategies, and what the Wasatch Experience has to do with it.

The Ukiyo-e landscape print “The Great Wave” by Katsushika Hokusai is considered an icon of world art. What inspired your current project of using 3D technology to create Ukiyo-e style prints of Utah’s polluted landscapes?

I am interested in Japanese prints. But, I am not a printmaking artist. I have a very limited knowledge in terms of producing printmaking artworks. I’m a 3D animator, therefore I am wondering about new ways to utilize 3D printing technology actually connecting to the form of art.

Historically Japanese woodblock prints were more like popular art than high art, such as comic books and movie posters today. They were produced for the general public. One major subject matter in Japanese woodblock prints are landscapes. At the time, people weren’t able to travel around. So, if they wanted to see something from somewhere else, they would look at prints, just like we look at landscape photos today.

At the same time, I love Utah. I have traveled many places in Utah, and I think the environmental issues in Utah are huge. We have such amazing landscapes but often they present complex environmental issues. I thought about how landscapes are such a big subject in Japanese woodblock prints and thought “Why don’t I bring Utah’s landscape to that medium of art with new ways of making?”

Utah does have some magnificent landscapes. I am always disappointed when I can’t see the Oquirrh Mountains or Wasatch during the inversion. What role do you see the digital arts, or the digital artist, having in sustainability conversations?

All artists are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. I don’t think that is something specific to the digital arts. And what is not “digital” now anyway? I think it is some driving force to try something new by connecting us to, more importantly, the new idea of the human interaction with the computer.

I am not aware of any other computer animation artists trying to build a connection between computer animation and sustainability. I have seen a lot of digital photography about sustainability, but not 3D technology and computer generated arts.  Computer generated images are often built upon a virtual world. When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about a lot of real issues in reality. We often separate the two—the real and the virtual world. I think this is a direction we should work on. We should connect the virtual world with the real world.

3D technology has been used widely in the issue of sustainability—as data-driven visual representation, serving specific scientific purposes, I would like to utilize this technology to incite some kind of feelings, expressions, emotions, that raises awareness of or challenges the unsustainable norms we have in society.

That is interesting idea—blending virtual and physical reality through sustainability. How do you incorporate sustainability into your animation courses?

In my animation production course, the students must learn the skills to make animation shorts. For our midterm project, I asked them to find a place that is significant for them and create an animation about it. Their final project is to create an interactive animation about a sustainability issue. To prepare, the students look for and analyze animation examples. What is the characters’ view of the environment surrounding them? What are the different points of view presented in this particular example of animation? I want them to see the complexity of issues in sustainability.

Animation/Film/Art is always about something. I try to design a project for students to get interested in the topics related to the environment. When I teach, I don’t call it sustainability. I get them interested in the environment and connect them with their environment.

Have you found any surprising connections to sustainability in your teaching?

I told them the idea of sustainability is open to your interpretation as long as you can convince me. I have some students working on the more personal side of sustainability. One project was about an eating disorder and more about sustaining herself as an individual. Another project was about depression. They argued it is about sustainable lives. One student did a great animation of silly/funny fights among characters. They were all shouting the word “sustainability” but they  weren’t really doing anything. I don’t want to limit them, so I let them do all kinds of projects as long as they present a case of their view .

In the end, I always have something that is quite fun and interesting

What challenges have you faced incorporating sustainability into your courses?

The learning objectives of my animation courses are to learn how to make animation. I don’t have a lot of time to discuss the issues, impacts, and why these issues are complicated. I asked my students to do their own research, but during the class time, we spend the majority of our time on learning animation techniques.

The class I incorporated the topic of sustainability in is actually a freshman/fundamental technique course. It is our basic course for animation students. So, I really hope we can have a more in-depth course where students already have the skills so they don’t have to spend too much time in terms of learning how to make animation and thus we can spend more time on investigating the issues they are engaged in their animations. So that is one of the challenges I am facing.

How has your involvement with the Wasatch Experience impacted your teaching?

By going through the Wasatch Experience, workshops, and chatting with folks, I received a lot of help in designing this course project. For example, I always have an assignment of animation analyses. I ask my students to analyze the techniques, story, character design, art styles, and other elements in order to understand the medium (animation) better. But after the Wasatch Experience workshop, I ask them to focus on the topics of sustainability while analyzing animation techniques, styles, character development, and other stuff. That was the idea from one of my Wasatch Experience peers during a group discussion. Implementing this made this particular assignment more solid and I think my students’ analyses now are more focused than before.

Also, my Wasatch Experience peers gave me a lot of accessible readings that I was able to incorporate into my assignments. I am not an expert on sustainability or environmental studies. I think not only I learned a great deal from others, but also now I am backed up with the network and resources for my teaching and research projects.

What advice do you have for faculty and teaching assistants who want to incorporate sustainability into their courses?

I think if someone wants to teach sustainability, the best approach is trying to not say the word. For a lot of students, this word becomes a barrier. In a way, you want to gradually bring them into what you want them to learn. Instead of telling them this big word that, in a sense, may mean nothing to them, my idea is always to think about how I can make them aware of their environment.

Image of Lien Fan Shen via the Utah Daily Chronicle article further highlighting her creative research and art-making.

SUSTAINABLE LEADERSHIP

Originally posted on April 11 2017.

The Sustainability Office and Alta Ski Area recently awarded eight Alta Sustainability Leadership Awards to members of the University of Utah campus community for their sustainability leadership, and recognized Onno Wieringa, Alta’s general manager and president, for his lifetime work advancing sustainability.

“Alta Ski area realizes we must encourage our future leaders because we need them,” said Maura Olivos, the sustainability coordinator at the Alta Environmental Center. “It takes more than passion and smarts to be a leader and maintain effort or progress. Leadership requires honesty, dedication, empathy, courage, communication and a shared vision.”

Each of these leaders received an honorarium in addition to recognition at the annual Alta Lecture and Awards event. In total, members of the U community were awarded $10,000. The 2017 award recipients are:

Elizabeth Archuleta, associate chair of Ethnic Studies in the College of Social and Cultural Transformation 
Archuleta received the Sustainability Education Integration Award for her course “American Indian/Indigenous Women,” as well as her work fostering sustainability education across campus. In her course, Archuleta uses sustainability as a framework to explore issues impacting American Indian/Indigenous women as seen from various disciplines. In addition to this course, Archuleta has worked to refine a systems-thinking rubric for inclusion in the U’s undergraduate general education learning outcomes, weaving social justice and sustainability together.
Robin Craig, professor in the College of Law 
Craig received the Sustainability Research Award for her extensive interdisciplinary research regarding the governance of water resources. Craig’s research examines how environmental and natural resources law needs to adapt to accommodate the dynamics of changing ecosystems. These findings, developed through research partnerships with local and national scholars, have been published in a number of prestigious platforms including the “Harvard Environmental Law Review” and “Ecology and Society.”
Hunter Klingensmith, undergraduate student in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, along with her team architecture students Matthew Cranney, Matthew Drake and Nathan Jellen
These students received the Campus as a Living Lab Award for their work on water smart design. Klingensmith, Cranney, Drake and Jellen designed a water conservation garden using bioretention cells and bioswales for the new Carolyn and Kem Gardner building. This garden’s prominent location adjacent to the largest classroom building on campus elevates its impact as a living laboratory for field study opportunities to students and faculty and will further offer a welcoming space for study, reflection on nature and restoration.
Aaron Phillips, assistant professor (lecturer) in Management at the School of Business
Phillips received the Sustainability Integration Award for his course Leadership & Sustainability in Living Systems and his integration of systems thinking into Foundations of Business Thought, a pre-requisite course for business majors. With these two courses and his work on the university’s Sustainability Education Advisory Committee, Phillips is integrating sustainability in useful and novel ways at the School of Business and across campus.
Cheryl Pirozzi, assistant professor of Internal Medicine in the School of Medicine 
Pirozzi received the Sustainability Community Partnership Award for her tireless efforts to increase the awareness of the physician community regarding the importance of air quality to patients’ health. One important aspect of Pirozzi’s work is that she engages respiratory patients and physicians in awareness of air quality issues through community involvement, ensuring that the research she produces is translated to the local population. Pirozzi’s work incorporates sustainability and systems thinking in medicine beyond the traditional view of medicine and physician’s roles.
Onno Wieringa, Alta present and general manager
In recognition of his work to advance sustainability, Wieringa was also recognized at the March 27 awards ceremony with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Wieringa has guided Alta Ski Area to become a beacon for sustainability in the broader ski community.

The Alta Sustainability Leadership Awards highlight the shared commitment to sustainability between the U and Alta Ski Area through recognizing and cultivating leaders. Alta’s multi-year partnership with the U on the awards advances sustainability across campus.

“While many businesses are committed to greening their own operations, a true mark of leadership in the field of sustainability is investing in current and future generations both on and off site,” said said Adrienne Cachelin, director of sustainability education on campus. “This is exactly what Alta is doing through these awards.”

This year’s award winners come from a variety of disciplines, demonstrating that sustainability demands collaboration, creative thinking and expertise from across campus and community. Join us in congratulating these awardees on their excellent work and look for a future call for nominations for this award in early 2018.

INVESTIGATING CONTAMINATION

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

The Marcellus shale in northeastern Pennsylvania is estimated to hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, possibly making it the second largest natural gas field in the world. The deep sedimentary rock of the Marcellus requires hydraulic fracturing to access the natural gas trapped between rock layers.

By John G. Van Hoesen [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is when a chemical mixture is pumped into the subsurface at high pressures to fracture the rock and release gas used for energy production. Fracturing operations may have the potential to contaminate surface and drinking water, but finding the source of the polluting contaminants is a controversial undertaking. Scientists have relied on isotopes to assess contaminant sources.

Jennifer C. McIntosh, a University Distinguished Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, will critically evaluate how tracing isotopes can help identify contaminants from hydraulic fracturing at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 18 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Almost every element comes in multiple forms. Each element contains a characteristic number of protons—as that is what allows the atom to be identified. The number of neutrons for that element can vary. Atoms with the same number of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons are isotopes.

Isotopes have been used to track sources of contamination (like brine, fracking fluids, methane, or natural gas) to see if the contaminant is natural or human created. McIntosh describes isotopes as a fingerprint. Tracing these fingerprints is an effective way to identify where a contaminant is coming from.

“Depending on what geology an element or water interacts with,” McIntosh said, “the element is going to pick up a particular signature. This is a forensics type of work, you are essentially an investigator.”

By Joshua Doubek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

McIntosh will point to contamination case studies from the Marcellus Shale gas production, and the Bakken Shale oil production in North Dakota. She will also talk about her own work collecting baseline studies on methane and shallow aquifers in Ontario, Canada. In case there are future environmental impacts—like leakage of natural gas or fracturing fluids—from future hydraulic fracturing in the area, McIntosh’s data will serve as a baseline of what Ontario was like before contamination

“Ontario has a shale that is equivalent to the Marcellus Shale, but there has been no shale gas production” explained McIntosh.

Using her expertise in natural tracers, McIntosh developed a road map agencies can use to determine if there is any contamination from oil and gas production. In it, McIntosh illuminates what an agency would want to do beforehand to have the best baseline data in place, the data they would want to collect during a fracking operation, and what data to collect afterward if contamination is suspected.

Learn more at McIntosh’s lecture, “Tracing Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing and Oil/Gas Production” on Tuesday, April 18 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

Cover Photo: By lalabell68 [CC0 Public Domain], via Pixabay

IN DEFENSE OF DARK SKIES

By: Colter Dye, Sustainability Ambassador.

Bridging the borders of three great North American ecosystems: the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Rocky Mountains, Salt Lake City is a popular destination for wildlife enthusiasts, outdoor adventurers, and those seeking to connect to the natural world. While snow-capped mountain peaks, vast red deserts, and tree-filled canyons are majestic, one of the most awe-inspiring views comes from glimpsing an arm of the Milky Way Galaxy against a deep blue night sky.

Maintaining a view of our dark skies has implications beyond the inspirational connection to the universe, it is also vital to the health and safety of humans and wildlife as well as our respective ecosystems, which often overlap.  The new Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah hopes to preserve access to dark skies.

Formal recognition of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS) was made official last month by the University of Utah, a strategic location for the CDSS as Salt Lake City is central to what Stephen Goldsmith, co-director of the CDSS and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning calls the “Great Starry Way.”

“This portion of the West, basically Montana down to New Mexico, is what I would call the Great Starry Way. These are the darkest places left in the developed world – That’s on the planet, on the Earth!” remarked Goldsmith.

Courtesy of Bettymaya Foott.

Many migratory birds, including thrushes, wrens, orioles, black birds, cuckoos, tanagers, and most species of sparrow, make the majority of their seasonal migrations during the nighttime hours. Species may migrate during the nighttime hours to avoid daytime predators, maximize foraging time during the day, navigate using the moon or constellations, or to prevent their bodies from overheating due to hours of wing flapping. These species now have to navigate new challenges in nighttime migration caused by the constant blaring lights emitted from human settlements.

Flocks of birds may mistake these glowing metropoles for the shining light of the moon or they may be unable to see the constellations they use to navigate because they are muted by the glowing artificial lights. Other birds seem to mistake gleaming glass windows for the surface of water reflecting moonlight. The fate of many of these birds ends with disorientation or confusion leading to missed navigational points, exhaustion, or a quick demise as they collide with buildings. Each year, in North America alone, anywhere between 365 million and 1 billion birds die from collisions with buildings.

Migrating birds are not the only wildlife affected. Many species of frogs wait for cues from the night sky and the moon to cue their breeding rituals of croaking and calling to find a mate. Nocturnal insects are fatally attracted to artificial lights, preventing them from breeding naturally and making them vulnerable to nighttime predators. On the warmer coasts of the world, baby sea turtles search for the twinkling lights of the moon and stars being reflected on the ocean, but are instead drawn toward the glowing lights of roads and cities, leading them to a certain death by car, dehydration, or predation.

Humans are also physiologically ruled by the regular pattern of night and day. Exposure to artificial light at night negatively affects the human circadian rhythm which not only affects sleep cycles but also the production of important hormones which regulate vital biological processes. These changes have been linked to depression, obesity, as well as breast and prostate cancers. While most cities have had ordinances in place for many years to regulate noise pollution, very few have paid any attention to the important consequences of light trespass and pollution.

The work of the CDSS will help to fill this gap. CDSS affiliates come from many departments of the University of Utah, as well as community, government, and industry partners. Tracy Aviary is an advisor for the CDSS.

Beginning in April of 2016, Tracy Aviary began implementing a strategic campaign to decrease light pollution in Salt Lake County, Utah, by holding a series of ‘migration moonwatch’ events to educate the public about the impact of light pollution on migrating birds. In 2017, the Aviary will expand the program to include strategic data collection on birds that strike buildings as a result of light pollution in Salt Lake’s urban core. Building off of strategies from other successful dark skies projects such as FLAPand “lights out,” the Aviary developed the Salt Lake Avian Collision Survey (SLACS), a citizen science project where volunteers will walk early morning survey routes during the migration season to search for and collect data on birds that had collided with lighted buildings overnight. Information collected by SLACS will help target photon reduction strategies and build public support for a “lights out for migration” initiative in Salt Lake.

This kind of period of decreased artificial light benefits human communities as well as birds and other wildlife. It reduces the consumption of fossil fuels that are used to power unnecessary lights, potentially saving billions of dollars and reducing pollutant emissions by many tons. It also allows humans living in urban areas to reconnect with the night sky and enjoy the Milky Way, which some people may not have seen for many years and some children may have never seen in their lives. Many communities are even using these lights out periods to host festivals celebrating the night sky, uniting divided populations, and teaching citizens about the wonders of astronomy.

With its placement on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, University of Utah’s campus is one of the only college campuses in the United States that provides a direct connection to wild, undeveloped land and the opportunity for encounters with the natural world. Our special connection to and awareness of the natural world makes our campus the ideal place to continue research on the values of reducing light pollution and implementing practices to restore dark skies to our campus and Salt Lake City.

Colter Dye is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation through the Bachelor of University Studies program at the University of Utah. He is a Sustainability Ambassador for the Sustainability Office at the University of Utah. He is also a Conservation Science Intern at Tracy Aviary and an affiliate of the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah.

NAVIGATING UNCHARTED WATERS: HOW THE HUMANITIES CAN GUIDE THE WAY

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

A man lies on a dismasted, rudderless fishing boat. He appears unimpressed by the sharks loitering off the port, and oblivious to the ship faintly on the horizon. This painting, “The Gulf Stream” by Winslow Homer, has been interpreted several times since its creation in 1899. Now, in our current climate chaos, Homer’s depiction of a shipwreck takes on a new meaning.

“Shipwreck captures both the moment of extreme danger, and the potential for rebuilding afterwards,” explained Jeffrey McCarthy, director of the University of Utah Humanities Program. “Shipwreck is an interesting symbol for us in this moment of a distressed and chaotic climate.”

McCarthy on the ocean.

McCarthy will discuss the symbol of shipwreck, the paintings of Winslow Homer, and point to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a way to illuminate the humanities’ crucial role in understanding human relationships to the ocean and our climate future at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 4 from 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

The ocean is essential to life on earth. It covers over 70% of our planet’s surface, and plays a fundamental role in shaping climate zones—even in places hundreds of miles inland. The ocean regulates earth systems, supplies living and non-living resources, and provides social and economic goods and services. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere came from the ocean.

The ocean is the planet’s largest carbon sink. As it absorbs 26% of all CO2 released from fossil fuels, the chemistry of seawater is changing. The ocean has also absorbed 90% of atmospheric heat trapped by greenhouse gasses, which is increasing ocean temperatures. As life in the ocean changes, life on land will change too.

The ocean is less predictable, and less inhabitable for humans than its terrestrial counterparts. As we are entering a climate where there will be less predictability, analyzing seascapes can provide a way “to get our heads around what it means to occupy a space that is given to flux and uncertainty,” explained McCarthy.

Eastern Point Light by Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Environmental literary studies, and environmental studies more broadly, has been largely terrestrial,” McCarthy explained. “It is time to expand our notion of the planet we occupy to include not just the green parts, but also the blue parts.”

Art is a powerful addition to the data on climate change. By capturing how a culture responds to moments of uncertainty and risk, art shows the human-scale of climate change. In his talk, McCarthy will explore how cultural analysis of art can be a tool for understanding the past and navigating future crises.

“Art can remind us who we are, and who we want to be,” McCarthy concluded. “There is hope and beauty with art. We could all use more of both.”

Learn more at McCarthy’s lecture, “The Watery Part of the World: The humanities, the ocean and the Anthropocene” on Tuesday, April 4 at 4 pm in 210 ASB.

ALTA SUSTAINABILITY LEADERSHIP AWARDS & SEMINAR; GOBI GRIZZLIES AND HOMEGROWN GRIZZLIES

Douglas H. Chadwick, wildlife biologist.

March 27, 2017 | 1:00 -2:00 p.m.

Gould Auditorium in the Marriott Library

Join the University community in honoring this year’s recipients of the Alta Sustainability Leadership Awards accompanied by a unique keynote lecture from wildlife biologist Douglas H. Chadwick. The Alta Sustainability Leadership Awards recognize excellence in leadership for the health of our community and planet. The awards are generously donated by Alta Ski Area.

Wildlife biologist Douglas H. Chadwick’s presentation will focus on the dustiest, thirstiest, bed-hair shaggiest—and rarest—bears in the world: Gobi grizzlies.

A heavyset Gobi bear, probably a male, captured by an automatic camera anchored to the wall in the narrowest part of a canyon. Photo: Joe Riis

They live on the outer edge of possibility, among wild camels, wild asses, ibex, wolves, and snow leopards in one of the harshest environments on Earth.

Chadwick, who studied mountain goat ecology and social behavior atop the Crown of the Continent for seven years, is a natural history journalist, producing 14 popular books and hundreds of magazine articles. Chadwick is a founding board member of the Vital Ground Foundation, a conservation land trust.

INFUSING SUSTAINABILITY INTO EDUCATION: BRIAN CODDING

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Brian Codding is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah.  His work combines ecological approaches in ethnography and archaeology to explain present and past human behavior, focusing on the relationship between human decisions and how those decisions impact the local environment. Codding participated in the Wasatch Experience in 2015, and last month shared his knowledge at the interdisciplinary Sustainability Faculty Learning Community as a Sustainability Teaching Scholar.

The Sustainability Faculty Learning Community is a joint initiative of the Sustainability Office and the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. The monthly meeting provides University of Utah faculty and teaching assistants the opportunity to engage, practice, and discuss integrating the big ideas of sustainability into their own courses and academic endeavors.

At February’s learning community, Codding shared strategies and activities he uses to integrate sustainability into his courses. I sat down with him after his presentation to discuss his research, teaching strategies, and what the Wasatch Experience has to do with it. 

Some of your work is rooted in prehistoric societies. Are there sustainability lessons we can draw from these societies?

A lot of this was popularized by Jared Diamond in the book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” While there are a lot of problems with that book, Diamond provides lessons we could learn from past human societies. I think the biggest, and probably most important, tool prehistory provides is a long-term perspective. It allows us to see what happens over large spans of time. We see how individuals are making decisions in the landscape, such as how resources are used and intensified irrigation practices, and what the fallout of those decisions are. The mistake Diamond makes is to not really pay attention to the social dilemmas that are underlying the collapses. Just because a society collapsed does not mean that a society in a similar ecological context will inevitably collapse too. It will if we don’t solve the underlying social dilemmas that are causing the Tragedy of the Commons.

Has studying and teaching prehistory changed your ideas of sustainability?

It would actually be the other way around. Studying sustainability issues in the present helped me realize how important it is to look at these issues in prehistory. You can’t fault Diamond, for example, for not realizing collective action problems that are driving the collapse, because these problems don’t fossilize. You can’t see social dilemmas, but they are pervasive. By seeing these dilemmas in the present day, among our industrial society, the global world, and acutely in small-scale societies, you can start to trace how they probably underlie all of these sustainability issues in the past as well.

You teach a variety of classes like World Prehistory, Spatial Analysis, and multiple levels of research. How do you incorporate sustainability into these different areas of study?

In the larger introductory courses, I generally introduce sustainability concepts as underlying themes. In World Prehistory, for example, one of the major themes of the course is understanding how human’s interaction with their environment results in either sustainable or unsustainable outcomes. You can see evidence of how human evolution might be driven by unsustainable foraging practices coupled with climatic change from really early on in our lineage. You can see things like maybe the reason why we spread across the entire planet is because we were using up too many resources in place, and we were better off moving to another place that is new land. Every time humans move, you see really stark environmental consequences.

The smaller upper-division courses are where I really try to use the same general concepts, but present them through more active learning techniques. An example would be facilitating a debate about what happens when humans enter a continent for the first time. Did humans have a beneficial effect on that environment, or a negative impact? By getting more in-depth, students are able to better understand and engage with underlying social dilemmas.

In other courses, I use labs that are based on real data sets in the published literature from anthropologists.  Students might analyze time series data looking at human resource interactions. An example is looking at what happens when humans are taking deer in the Great Basin for 10,000 years. Well, it suppresses their population. Students are learning an analytical technique, but with some type of sustainability topic embedded within it.

Have you found any surprising connections to sustainability in your teaching?

I have been surprised by how different disciplines define and use sustainability for teaching. In a lot of ways, it shows a common thread across all colleges and departments at the university. On the other hand, even in very basic terms, we sometimes talk past each other because we are not defining sustainability in the same way. Realizing how different people use “sustainability” has led me to clarify how anthropologists define sustainability to other people. I have benefited from learning other definitions of sustainability, and how other things like social justice and social inequality are sitting on a foundation of sustainable or unsustainable resource use.

How can you tell when you have successfully incorporated sustainability? 

Sometimes it is as simple as seeing the expression on a student’s face change as they are going through an activity or a lecture. The extension of that is having conversations with students after class who literally say “I have never thought about this before” and that shows me that I am doing something right. It encourages me to continue to try and reach students who really don’t think about these core sustainable concepts.

If and how has your involvement with the Wasatch Experience impacted your teaching? 

The Wasatch Experience is where I started comparing definitions of sustainability with other faculty across campus. It helped me understand the university-wide pedagogical framework, and structured the way I put learning objectives together. I had already been incorporating active learning before the Wasatch Experience, but I really tried to do it more. Before, I wouldn’t spend a detailed amount of time getting into the definitions of sustainability. Now I make sure I am really clear about what I mean rather than just jumping into concepts like social dilemmas or Tragedy of the Commons.

Both on a level of sustainability but also in pedagogy, the Wasatch Experience has been very useful. It has broadened what perspectives I know are on campus and broadened the network of people that I know. Now I can go to a meeting or a talk and see someone from the Wasatch Experience who I know who is interested in the same types of questions that I am. I found it really useful. It really feels like a community.

 What advice do you have for faculty and teaching assistants who want to incorporate sustainability into their courses?

Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you get an idea from somewhere, give it a shot. If it doesn’t work – and guaranteed it won’t work perfect the first time, try to figure out what worked well and adapt it. Also, don’t be afraid to stop doing something if it is not working for your discipline. Even if it doesn’t end up working for you, it is worthwhile to try new things.

Cover Photo: Knowledge commons by Ellen Forsyth. Via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.