The Science of Science Communication

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

Communication is a vital part of science. Articulating one’s research to broad audiences can have a significant impact on how that research is discovered and shared. While scientists and communicators have often relied on intuitive rules to guide communication, science communication (as a field in itself), is supported by empirical insights that inform how to best communicate about science issues.

Sara K Yeo, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, will describe the science of science communication at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, April 10, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Sara K Yeo. Used with permission.

Yeo’s research explores how audiences seek and process information about science from the media. Her research methods include surveys, experiments embedded in surveys (either online or over the phone), and content analysis.

“If you think about where we get science from it is very rarely now in traditional news or television,” said Yeo. “Most people go online to find information about science.”

When you are reading science information online, there are many factors that influence how you understand that information. The social component of online sources (like buttons and share options) are often embedded in the source. According to Yeo, the number of likes and shares can influence how we think about the information we are reading. But it isn’t just the social components that have an influence. The language used within the message, and its context, can also influence how the information is received.

Yeo’s current project explored tweets regarding climate change and global warming, uncovering the context in which audiences used the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’. She also worked alongside atmospheric scientists to determine if temperature variations across the United States were related to Twitter reactions.

“What we saw was the phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ used in different contexts,” said Yeo. “Global warming was used in context to the weather and was correlated with temperature changes. Whereas, climate change tends to be used in more environmental and political type discourses.”

Mapping the discourse surrounding scientific issues on social media is an important part of science communication research. Collecting this data can inform how communication is being translated to different audiences and inform science communication scholars and practitioners.

To hear more about the empirical research being done on science communication and how the direction the field is moving, attend Yeo’s GCSC lecture, “The Science of Science Communication” on Tuesday, April 10 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Melding Perspectives, Finding Solutions

In Utah, the second driest state in the country, water is a critical issue. Our water systems are interconnected with human systems, and as our population expands and the climate changes, protecting and sharing this resource equitably will require collaboration between researchers, practitioners and decision makers.

When it comes to collaborative water research, the U’s Society, Water, and Climate Research Group (SWC) is leading the way. With the addition of five new faculty members, the group has undertaken an ambitious mandate – to meld multiple scientific perspectives toward finding sustainable water solutions for a changing world.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and incoming president, addresses faculty at the forum.

Many U faculty already had significant expertise related to water, society and climate, but there were areas that could be strengthened. A group of U researchers, led by the chair of the U’s Geography Department Andrea Brunelle, formed the SWC in 2013.

The team’s first task was to articulate gaps in the society, water and climate perspectives already at the U. Then they proposed new faculty positions to fill those gaps through the university’s Transformative Excellence Program. The Transformative Excellence Program is an ongoing hiring initiative seeking new faculty focused around interdisciplinary themes rather than discipline.

“If we are to truly address Utah’s – and the nation’s – societal issues, we must think beyond our traditional approaches,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins, who is also the incoming present of the U. “The Transformative Excellence Program was designed to identify areas within the university where focusing on strategic additions to our faculty could enhance our preeminence and allow us to better serve the citizens of this state and country.”

Ten departments – Anthropology, Atmospheric Sciences, Biology, Economics, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, Geography, Geology & Geophysics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology – invested in this unique hiring process, an unprecedented level of interdepartmental collaboration.

“This hiring process was very inspiring and rewarding,” said Brunelle. “Working with a group of faculty who obviously care so much about these topics and this research that they would invest an absolutely tremendous amount of time working on these searches even without a guarantee of a departmental hire was incredible. Even after the hires were completed, all the departments are represented on the SWC executive committee, showing continued investment in this collaborative endeavor.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this kind of cluster-hiring can be a fraught endeavor. It is challenging to ensure the process doesn’t unravel in the context of disciplinary hiring needs.

At the U, the SWC hiring process fit in with the university’s ethos of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Several years earlier, in 2011, the U underwent a similar hiring process for a small group of faculty who would work at the fringes of their discipline on climate- and environmental change-related research. This initial search ultimately brought Diane Pataki (Biology), Gabe Bowen (Geology & Geophysics) and John Lin (Atmospheric Sciences) to the U. This first group hire, which laid the groundwork for the Transformative Excellence Program, happened through the dedicated efforts of faculty in the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), which was led at the time by director emeritus Jim Ehleringer.

Audience members at the forum gather for panel presentation from (L to R) Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer; Steve Burian, director of the U Water Center; Andrea Brunelle, co-chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group; and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

The GCSC is a web of 140 faculty members in 10 colleges who all work within environmental and sustainability themes. The center facilitates faculty connections and interdisciplinary grants, offers graduate fellowships and research funds and manages a sustainability-related graduate certificate. In addition, the GCSC also has a series of ongoing and one-time events aimed at bringing the interdisciplinary community together in meaningful ways. All of these endeavors work to catalyze relevant research on global change and sustainability at the U.

“The investment the administration put into the GCSC really set a tone for the value that collaborative work has on this campus and that translated beautifully to the SWC project,” Brunelle said. “A great example of this is the generous contributions of time, resources and support that my Dean, Cindy Berg, provided throughout the multi-year hiring process.”

To build the SWC research group, broad descriptions of new faculty positions were posted online. The response was immediate and overwhelming. In the first year of the search, 13 candidates were brought to campus, offering fascinating talks about climate change and impacts on water and society.

After several years of intensive searches and interviews, the group is now complete with five new faculty in four departments. These five faculty bring nationally renowned research to the university while seamlessly integrating into their departmental homes.

“The Society, Water and Climate initiative has really helped to integrate GCSC scholars from across campus around a common set of questions and problems that require scholars to come together in new ways,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the GCSC. “The SWC focus has helped us to recognize and identify common research interests between seemingly separate fields and is creating opportunities for faculty and students to advance their work in new directions. The incoming SWC faculty are interdisciplinary leaders and are already catalyzing and supporting projects and grant proposals that move all of us forward as we work towards a future where humans and ecosystems thrive.”

Meet SWC hires. These members will join existing faculty who are part of the group.

William Anderegg, Biology, 2016

William Anderegg is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. His lab studies how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks. This research spans a broad array of spatial scales, from cells to ecosystems, and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests and societies around the world.

Juliet Carlisle, Political Science, arriving in 2018                                                                         

Juliet Carlisle is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research substantively deals with political behavior and public opinion with an emphasis on environmental politics and policy. In particular, Carlisle has investigated issues surrounding environmental concern, including what people know about the environment, where that knowledge originates and how that knowledge influences their opinions and behaviors. Her co-authored book, “The Politics of Energy Crises” (2017), applies policy theories to energy crises and explores energy policy during energy crises with specific attention on the role of public opinion, business interests and environmental activists.

Gannet Hallar, Atmospheric Sciences, 2016

Gannet Hallar is an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah and the director of Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, operated by the Desert Research Institute. Her research focuses on using high-quality measurements of trace gases, aerosol physical and chemical properties and cloud microphysics to understand connections between the biosphere, atmosphere and climate, along with the impact of anthropogenic emissions on these connections.

Summer Rupper, Geography, 2015

Summer Rupper is an associate professor in the Geography Department at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on glaciers and ice sheets as recorders and indicators of climate change and as freshwater resources. Recent and ongoing projects include quantifying glacier contributions to water resources and sea-level rise, assessing glacier sensitivity to climate change and reconstructing past climate using ice core snow accumulation data and geomorphic evidence of past glacier extents. These projects are all part of a larger effort to characterize climate variability and change and the impacts of these on society.

S. McKenzie Skiles, Geography, 2017

McKenzie Skiles is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah. She is an alpine and snow hydrologist whose research interests center on snow energy balance, remote sensing of mountain snow and ice and cryosphere-climate interaction. Her research methods combine numerical modeling, laboratory analysis, and field, in situ, and remotely sensed observations to better constrain the timing and magnitude of mountain snowmelt and to improve our understanding of how accelerated mountain snowmelt is impacting this critical natural reservoir over time.

The SWC is one of 10 Transformative Excellence cluster hiring initiatives currently in place at the U. Current projects include families and health research; society, water and climate; statistical science and big data; digital humanities; biophysics; sustaining biodiversity; health economics and health policy; resilient spaces (aging); science and math education; and neuroscience.

Banner image: Members of the SWC chat at the November 2017 Water Forum, the inaugural event for the Society, Water & Climate Research Group, organized by the SWC, the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and U Water Center. 

Antifreeze Adaptations

By Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

The Antarctic snailfish, Paraliparis devriesi, named after Professor Art DeVries from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, lives perhaps 700 m down and has insufficient antifreeze to cope with ice crystals. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Reaching temperatures as low as -89°C, Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on the planet. The Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica doesn’t offer much relief for species. In the winter, the ocean surface freezes solid, doubling the continent’s size. In the summer, temperatures rise just above freezing and melt away some of the sea ice.

Despite water temperatures remaining around -1.5 to -2°C, the Southern Ocean is teeming with life.

Peter Wilson, visiting distinguished professor at the University of South Florida and associate dean at the University of Tasmania Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, will provide a general overview of the Southern Ocean and explain how species have adapted to survive in and around Antarctica at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, March 27, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Over the course of millions of years, marine species have adapted to the harsh, cold water in the Southern Ocean.

“A fish from the coast of California would freeze solid like a popsicle if it was placed in the waters around Antarctica,” explained Wilson. “The fishes around Antarctica, and in the Arctic, have evolved to create these wonderfully interesting protein molecules that bind to the ice crystals and stop the crystals from growing.”

One of the species Wilson will discuss is the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). The Antarctic toothfish produces antifreeze glycoproteins that allow it to survive in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. The glycoprotein comes in a variety of size ranges, and can be found in all body water, not just in the blood. But Wilson suggests it isn’t the protein itself that is interesting. Rather it is the way the proteins bind with ice crystals.

Species with these antifreeze proteins can be classified as either freeze tolerant or freeze avoidant. Freeze tolerant species include those species who can handle a significant amount of freezing. Up to 81 percent of their body water can be frozen solid and these species will still survive, said Wilson.

Don Juan Pond is a small, hypersaline lake in the west end of Wright Valley. With a salinity of over 40%, Don Juan Pond is the saltiest of the Antarctic lakes and remains liquid even at temperatures as low as −50 °C. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Freeze avoidant species are the species who prevent the freezing of their bodily water all together. There are a few ways for species to be freeze avoidant. Some might avoid freezing by supercooling—chilling a liquid below freezing temperatures without the liquid becoming solid.

But it isn’t just Antarctic fish that have antifreeze capabilities, insects and mammals have also adapted to the cold temperatures under and on Antarctica. Some insects are able to avoid freezing completely by having gooey hemolymph (the insect equivalent to blood) that slows the formation of ice crystals. In his talk, Wilson will show how a number of species have adapted to the cold.

At the end of his talk, Wilson will indicate some of the ways humans are using this information about antifreeze proteins to transform our own lives. From producing smoother ice-cream to deicing airplanes, Antarctic species might hold the key for future innovation.

To hear more about Antarctic adaptations and Wilson’s journeys through the Pacific to Antarctica attend his GCSC lecture, “Antarctica—Fishes, Adaptations and Dealing with Ice” on Tuesday, March 27 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

 

 

Cover Photo: Ross Island, with Mt Erebus in the background and McMurdo Station seen at front right.  The photograph was taken standing on about 6 feet of sea ice. Courtesy of Peter Wilson.

Exploring the Politics of Space

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Sarah Kanouse was aware of the ways Los Angeles transformed from a desert community to a bustling city by building water and power structure. Later, when Kanouse found herself in “small college communities surrounded by cornfields,” she began to realize that rural landscapes are not as bucolic as they are portrayed.

“Being a person curious about where I am and what is surrounding me made me realize that the idealized landscape of rural America was heavily industrialized and engineered,” said Kanouse. “It is just as engineered as the city of Los Angeles.”

Landscapes, both urban and rural, are actively produced. Sarah Kanouse, Department of Art + Design at Northeastern University, works towards uncovering the historical, material, and social processes that have shaped a landscape through a range of artistic mediums.

Kanouse will present several of her recent works that address the ways in which environment and society influence one another at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Kanouse identifies with an emerging area of creative work known as artistic research or practice-based research. A single medium does not define this artistic practice, rather it is defined by ones’ inquiry.

“For artistic research, the media you select needs to align with the set of ideas you are working with,” explained Kanouse. “Artistic design realizes that mediums are not neutral carriers of meaning. They have legacies that can be used productively, critically, or skeptically in your work.”

Kanouse’s artistic research is focused on the social production of landscape. The social production of a landscape recognizes the social and cultural processes that have shaped our ecological surroundings—sometimes in overlapping and conflicting ways. Kanouse researches these social landscapes by looking both at the way we create pictures of the land, but also the social practices that shape how we and perceive it. 

“Both the art genre [of landscape painting] and social expectations tend to make landscapes seem monumental and eternal. They generally conceal the ways [landscapes] are the product of historical, material, and ecological processes that have been going on for a long time,” said Kanouse.

This inquiry inspired Kanouse to create a film titled Around Crab Orchard—which she will share clips from in her presentation. Kanouse, along with many others, enjoyed spending time in Crab Orchard as a place of recreation. Crab Orchard is the only wildlife refuge in the United States who hosts active industry. What began as defense contracting site in WWII has evolved over time to address the economic needs the community and the state’s desire to open a maximum-security prison, said Kanouse.

The Monsanto Hearings by Sarah Kanouse. Used with permission.

“The film weaves together all these different stories of Crab Orchard that are usually told separately, or not at all,” said Kanouse. “It does so in a way that unpacks how the visual manifestation of recreation, hiking, and camping conceals all of the other aspects of this space.”

Kanouse’s work often alternates between solo projects and collaborative socially engaged projects. In the collaborative projects, Kanouse takes on the role of a facilitator who enables the creative expression and participation of people who may not identify as artists. One socially engaged project Kanouse has facilitated is The Monsanto Hearings. In this performative series, the courtroom became a stage for small communities dependent on agriculture to share their stories.

“We created this space for people to present evidence about how the decade-long practices of Monsanto had negatively impacted their community,” said Kanouse.

To learn more, attend Sarah Kanouse’s lecture, “Entanglements: artistic strategies for complex ecologies” on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB.

 

Cover Photo: Around Crab Orchard by Sarah Kanouse. Used with permission. 

curating global ecology through big data

Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant.

Ecologists seek to answer the big questions about how the world is changing, and how species and ecosystems are responding to those changes. To answer these questions, a new network of analysis is needed. Community-curated data sources can provide new insight on how systems are have changed in the past and how they are changing now.

Jack Williams, professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will show how two community curated data sources are bringing reliable, big data to bear on the challenges of a changing world at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

Jack Williams, used with permission.

According to Williams, four V’s (volume, variety, velocity, and veracity) characterize ecological big data. Volume refers to the size of data, variety is the heterogeneity – diverse nature – of data types and measurements, velocity is the rate data needs to be generated or analyzed at, and veracity is the potential uncertainties.

Community-curated data sources have been developed to enable global-scale science. These data networks are also changing the way data is analyzed.

“The standard has been to run ecosystem models and analyze data somewhat independently of each other,” Williams said. “But now we have the opportunity to do more simulations where the data doesn’t constrain the simulations and improve the parameterization and forecast.”

Multiple groups have begun building databases that bring the data and paleoecological records from multiple networks to larger scales. These data sets can be applied to testing and improving the predictability of ecosystem models.

Williams will structure his talk around two different data networks—Neotoma and PalEON. Neotoma gathers large amounts of records from around the world and assembles it into one common resource that is publically available. PalEON is an example of one type of research that can be done with this kind of global platform for ecological and paleoecological research.

“Neotoma and PalEON are part of a broader set of efforts to gather many different kinds of ecological data into extended observational networks,” Williams explained. “We can now look at ecological dynamics at long timescales and at large spatial scales.”

Williams studies species’ responses to climate change. By using the last 2,000 years as a model, he can look at how species have migrated or changed in past climate. His work with PalEON is interested in using ecosystem models to forecast and predict species responses to climate change at decadal and centennial time scales.

“An interesting initial finding is that, as a result of climate change and human land use over the last century, the climatic niches of trees have changed,” explained Williams. “A lot of our predictive models use modern climates and modern tree species distribution as the basis of our predictions of forest responses to current and future climate change. Seeing how niches have changed suggests there is perhaps there is some disequilibrium with current climate change.”

To learn more about ecological big data, attend William’s seminar, “Achieving global ecology via dispersed community-curated data resources: Neotoma and PalEON” on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 4-5 pm in 210 ASB.

 

Cover Photo by geralt via pixabay. CC0.

Embodied Sustainability

By: Bianca Greeff, Graduate Assistant

As a socially engaged artistic process, dance can be a powerful medium for communicating the ideas, facts, and figures of sustainability and environmental justice. Engaging with these ideas on a physical level can lead to a new perspective of the interconnections between our bodies and the environment.

Dr. Ananya Chatterjea, professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance and founder/artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, will explain how dance can connect and ground us at the GCSC Seminar Series on Tuesday, October 24, 4-5 p.m. in 210 ASB.

For Chatterjea, the body is both at the center of her work and in the middle of the environmental justice movement. Through dance, Chatterjea has been able to understand her connectivity to the world and engage with environmental justice in a different way than she would have without art.

 “Everything ultimately filters through the body,” Chatterjea explained. “When you cannot breathe in the way you need to, or when the food you eat or the water you drink does not refresh or rejuvenate your physical body, your humanity begins to diminish.”

Dance is a way to connect with our bodies to help us understand ourselves and how we interact with others. Chatterjea knows that for some, the idea of dancing may seem intimidating.

“Dance has been taken over by this idea that only people with highly able and fit bodies are the people who can dance,” Chatterjea noted.

Pushing against the way dance has been taken over by reality shows and single body types, Chatterjea works to create a form of dance that allows for femininity and resistance by embracing the body’s strength and beauty. In her dances, Chatterjea layers Odissi — a classical Indian dance form — the martial art form Chhau, and vinyasa and pranayama yoga.

All these different movement forms are connected through the idea of being grounded. While each form brings different ideas and aesthetics to the piece, weaving them together creates a language that allows for a powerful feminist presence.

“Women are constantly doing beautiful work,” Chatterjea said. “They are the sustainers of humanity, but a lot of their work doesn’t go down into ‘history’ with a capital H. We have to tell these stories and archive them through our bodies.”

The narrative arc Chatterjea creates in each dance is partly remembered, partly researched, and partly imagined. The stories told in the choreography come from a collective voice. Chatterjea describes her choreographic process as collecting stories. Sometimes through story circles or workshops, voices come together to create a collaborative, connected narrative.

Bringing different voices and bodies into dance is at the core of the Ananya Dance Theatre’s work. The company is comprised of women artists of color who create socially engaged, embodied art.

“I want to fill dance with the most unlikely bodies and the most unlikely of faces and to see dance everywhere,” Chatterjea said.

To hear more about how embodied art can be resistance, attend Chatterjea’s seminar, “Choreographies of Resistance: Dancing Ecosystems” on Tuesday, October 24, 4-5 pm in 210 ASB. The entire company will perform their latest work, “Shyamali: Sprouting Words” as part of UtahPresents’ 2017-18 season on Saturday, October 28, 7:30 pm. 

10 YEARS OF SUSTAINABILITY

Originally posted in @theU on Sept. 22, 2017.

By Amy Brunvand, Sustainability Librarian.

The University of Utah Sustainability Office turns 10 years old this year, and it is truly amazing to look around campus and realize how much has changed for the better in the past decade. Nowadays, there are campus vegetable gardens with ripe tomatoes and hives of buzzing bees, solar parking canopies that provide both power and shade, electric vehicles plugged into charging stations, crowds of students arriving on TRAX light-rail trains, tasty vegetarian and vegan options on offer at the cafeteria, water bottle refilling stations in most buildings, and plenty of recycling bins to divert waste from the landfill.

The curriculum has changed, too. Undergraduates can earn a number of sustainability-focused degrees and minors, while graduate students in any field can add an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability to their credentials.

Over the years, students, staff and faculty have all contributed to a vision of making the University of Utah a better place. In September, the Sustainability Office will celebrate these milestones and achievements with a Sustainability Showcase highlighting current programs and resources, and a special presentation by Dr. Vandana Shiva who advocates for traditional agriculture, and environmental and social justice issues worldwide.

Join us at the Sustainability Showcase on Friday, Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on the Marriott Library Plaza for food, live music and fun activities. Later this fall, Dr. Vandana Shiva will present a public lecture at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., as part of UtahPresents 2017-18 season. Tickets are available now.

1991-2006: Early Beginnings of Sustainability

Ten years ago, the transition to campus sustainability had barely begun, although a few major milestones laid the foundation. The first big sustainable change was a side effect of trying to cope with limited parking; in 1991, Commuter Services launched the Ed Pass program to give a UTA transit pass to every student and employee on campus. Not only did this encourage people to leave their cars at home, it helped expand Salt Lake City’s light rail network when enthusiastic transit riders from the U showed up at City Council meetings to press for construction of the Red Line TRAX, which opened in 2001.

In 1996, a biology professor named Fred Montague started an “unofficial” campus vegetable garden to teach students about his ideas for ecological gardening. That unofficial garden became the foundation of today’s Edible Campus Gardens, which teaches volunteers how to grow food, supports organic gardening curriculum and sells produce at the University of Utah Farmers Market. By 2006, the university had also constructed the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, the first LEED-certified building which incorporated efficient use of energy and water, waste reduction and consideration of human health in the building’s design, construction, operations and maintenance.

These efforts were significant, but they weren’t yet part of a unified drive to implement sustainability on campus.

2007-2014: The Sustainability Office Forms

Divergent efforts began to coalesce in 2007, with the formation of the Sustainability Office (then called the Sustainability Resource Center), underneath Facilities Management.

Something like the Sustainability Office doesn’t happen without visionaries. The idea was originally proposed by students, but it was City & Metropolitan Planning faculty member Craig B. Forster who led the effort to make the idea work. Forster, who became the first director, was a natural fit with sustainability. He was interested in facilitating interdisciplinary research and bridging the gaps between science and public policy. He also had a talent for bringing people together and was deeply involved with the local community. In the summertime, he was often seen at the Pioneer Park farmers’ market playing cimbalom (a kind of hammered dulcimer) with his Hungarian Táncház band.

With only one full-time staff member and some volunteers, the Sustainability Office got to work organizing recycling at football games, installing the first solar panels on campus, setting up a campus farmers’ market, making sure that sustainability was included in the Campus Master Plan and developing a student fee to support student-led sustainability projects through the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund. On Earth Day 2008, University of Utah President Michael K. Young signed the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment, dedicating the university to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The year ended in tragedy, though, when Forster died in a hiking accident.

Despite the loss of Forster, the university persevered with a vision for making sustainability integral to its operations. In 2009, after a competitive nationwide search, architect and planner Myron Willson was appointed the next director of the office.

2014-2017: Sustainability is Integrated into Academic Affairs

In 2014, the Sustainability Office made another big change to adapt to the growing campus. Originally, the office was on the organizational chart under Facilities Management with the idea that university employees would take care of recycling, xeriscaping, transit passes and such.

But then an interesting thing happened. Students were getting more and more interested in sustainable change. They wanted to try out their ideas, and the campus was the most natural place for them to do so. With the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) now up and running, grants were available for student-led sustainability projects. The university had become a living laboratory for sustainable change, and sustainability-focused courses had popped up in academic departments all over campus. With so much involvement in interdisciplinary research and learning, the Sustainability Office moved into Academic Affairs, and Associate Vice President for Faculty and law professor Amy Wildermuth was named Chief Sustainability Officer in 2014. Wildermuth added Adrienne Cachelin, Environmental & Sustainability Studies faculty to the team as the director of sustainability education to guide burgeoning sustainability education efforts across campus.

Under Wildermuth, the Sustainability Office also joined forces with the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC), founded in 2010 by biology professor Jim Ehleringer to foster interdisciplinary sustainability research. Nowadays, under Director Brenda Bowen, Geology & Geophysics faculty, the 129 faculty affiliates of the GCSC represent nine colleges. The center supports graduate students through grants and fellowships, offers an interdisciplinary research seminar series, faculty networking opportunities, assistance for large interdisciplinary grants and core courses in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability curriculum.

Sustainability is You: The Next 10 Years

Today, the Sustainability Office team includes fourteen faculty and staff members as well as numerous student interns and volunteers and continues to expands its scope. Though much progress has been made, sustainability is an ongoing effort, and there is still a lot of work to do.

This year, the Sustainability Office celebrates 10 years of dedicated efforts of faculty, staff and students from across campus. The next 10 years of sustainability at the university will be guided by those in our community who get and remain involved. We invite you to be part of this important work. Join us at one of our fall events to learn about ways you can help make the U a better place for all who live, work and play here.

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

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.