Classes, programs inspired by environmentally friendly efforts

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 2, 2012

Of the 11 students in Engineering Prof. Steven Wright’s UC 275 course, only one is in the College of Engineering — a fact Wright said showcases the increasing interdisciplinary nature of sustainability efforts at the University.

In recent years, a growing number of students and professors from all fields of study have demonstrated an interest in environmental affairs, according to University professors and officials. To meet the increased demand for sustainable efforts, a variety of classes and programs have been instituted at the University that utilize skills from multiple disciplines.

Wright’s class includes a month-long trip to Liberia this July, where students will develop a sustainability assessment for a Liberian community and explore possible links between renewable energy sources and farming. This is Wright’s third year leading the program. He took students to Patagonia in southern South America to study hydropower in 2008 and 2009.

Despite the lack of engineering students in his class, Wright said he understands why students from across the University are inclined to enroll given its interactive approach and international component.

“You can talk about things in a lecture setting, and that’s a satisfactory way to learn,” he said. “But if you can learn something about a very particular issue and then go talk to people who might be directly involved in it on a day-to-day basis, it becomes a much more powerful learning experience.”

Apart from being a popular option for students to study abroad, the course emphasizes the University’s attention to sustainability research, which, according to University researchers and research administrators, is growing in scale and scope.

At the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, integrated assessments — studies that devise solutions to directed environmental problems with the aid of policymakers — have expanded the scope of issues the University can address, according to Don Scavia, the Institute’s director.

Scavia said he is optimistic about the research the University’s faculty is currently conducting on sustainability.

“We’ve hit the sweet spot in where we ought to be going and what we ought to be doing,” Scavia said.

Scavia, who also serves as University President Mary Sue Coleman’s special counsel on sustainability, said one such assessment culminated in the $14 million sustainability plan Coleman announced last September.

Larissa Larsen, associate professor of urban planning and of landscape, is conducting research for two additional Integrated Assessments, including a study on how midsize cities in the Great Lakes region can adapt to climate change in the coming years.

Larsen — in collaboration with colleagues and students from the School of Natural Resources and Environment, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the School of Public Health and the College of Engineering — is surveying policymakers in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Mich. and Milwaukee, Wisc., about their concerns with environmental issues.

The team has also been canvassing random residents in the cities to seek their opinions on prominent environmental topics highlighted by legislators, including precipitation and temperature. Larsen said the team will then conduct research about the issues in those cities and analyze the input from lawmakers and citizens to make policy recommendations.

Larsen is also studying the links between transportation and sustainably grown food in parts of Ypsilanti. Since the areas of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township are among the poorest in Washtenaw County, Larsen said she and Joe Grengs, associate professor of urban and regional planning, are looking at the feasibility of bringing local vendors of sustainably grown food to bus stops and stations.

“Working in this multi-disciplinary way is really important for these kinds of pressing concerns and questions for how these communities make good choices,” Larsen said. “There are so many issues to tackle but working with a group of diverse people improves the kind of answers and resolutions you can propose.”

The interdisciplinary approach to sustainability research at the University also improves researchers’ chances of earning federal grants for their projects and, in doing so, expands the range of studies here, Scavia said. The University has been able to respond to federal requests for interdisciplinary research by assembling teams from across fields and schools.

According to Scavia, researchers at the Graham Institute have received about $390 million in federal grants over the last 10 years. The institute identified climate, water and livable systems as the three most important areas, and funding for these areas has increased 40 percent over the last four years.

The benefits of the University’s success in acquiring federal funding have been felt University-wide as researchers unite to study multifaceted environmental issues. Michael Moore, dean for research at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said there have been increased efforts to acquire federal grants for large-scale sustainability projects developed in recent years.

“We have insights that single insights won’t generate,” Moore said. “That’s critical. By having a kind of multi-disciplinary team, we’re able to pose questions that a single discipline can’t.”

Moore said sustainability research at the school centers on climate change studies since it has been hard to encourage non-scientists to care about sustainability.

“It’s a huge social problem to get people to engage and think about global warming,” he said. “It still feels like it’s in the distant future — it’s 20 years off, it’s 40 years off, we’ll deal with it later.”

Moore added that sustainability as a whole is a pressing issue socially, environmentally, politically and economically. To address these facets, the school enlists a variety of faculty, including ecologists, geographers, sociologists, psychologists and economists, he said.

“Some of our research is political scientists thinking in political science terms,” he said. “But we also have teams where ecologists will be working with hydrologists and working with economists, geographers and other social scientists.”

Moore pointed to consumer behavior as a growing field of sustainability research. Psychologists and sociologists are partnering with climate change experts and economists to determine how to convince citizens to be aware of their carbon footprint and encourage them to invest in products that reduce it.

“It’s a good time to be doing environment research,” he said. “Funding is relatively good — there’s more opportunities, and there’s more interest from our faculty.”

Scavia agreed and said he was pleased the University commits itself to researching sustainability issues.

“It’s like turning an ocean liner,” he said. “It doesn’t happen quickly, but when it happens, it’s sustained.”

Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the program working on the most prominent areas of sustainability research through the Graham Institute. It also incorrectly identified Prof. Steven Wright's course as an engineering class in the lede.