UMass Dartmouth faculty, staff, and students embrace sustainability through research, teaching, and action
By Diane Hartnett, Spring 2009
By the time the refinish job on the Tripp Athletic Center gymnasium floor was completed last summer, some staff in the building were still asking when work would start.
They hadn't smelled that usual polyurethane scent, recalled David Ferguson, director of facilities. Because the university had switched to the "green, water-based version," the expected odor was missing.
It's a small, yet telling, example of the numerous ways in which UMass Dartmouth has embraced and is practicing the concept of "sustainability." Over the past two years, the university has made a multi-faceted, wholehearted commitment to becoming more green, more conservation-minded, and more environmentally sensitive.
The signs are everywhere: blue recycling bins in virtually all offices, recycling bags for resident students, timing sensors for lights, lower-flow showerheads, and a boiler plant whose new gas component means cleaner fuel and emissions. On the academic front, an inter-disciplinary sustainability studies program has been introduced, while faculty are engaged in research that responds to a variety of environmental challenges.
Those signs serve to define sustainability at its most basic level: the protection and wise use of resources. "The traditional definition centers on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to care for themselves," explained Susan Jennings, director of the Office of Campus and Community Sustainability. "Today, we see it as something of a three-legged stool - that sustainability is a matter of financial viability, ecological health, and social equity."
Working on that definition, sustainability manifests itself at UMass Dartmouth in ways that go well beyond recycling cans and lowering thermostats. A nursing professor, for example, researches sustainable health care for the world's needy, while at the School for Marine Science and Technology, faculty explore ways to sustain fish stocks without ruining the fisherman's livelihood. A computer specialist oversees a film series on the movement's socio-economic implications, and the Portuguese Studies Department hosts a program on pollution in the Amazon.
The university has also carved out a major role for itself in the region's conservation efforts. The two-year-old sustainability office has taken the lead in developing projects with and for cities and towns. University administrators and local communities have designed mutually-beneficial arrangements in areas such as recycling and the disposal of waste.
Particularly noteworthy about the university's sustainability initiative is the incorporation of an academic component. Mindful of its core mission, the university heeded the advice of numerous faculty who wanted education to constitute a major element of any sustainability plan.
There is another distinctive characteristic of sustainability at UMass Dartmouth: the convening of faculty, staff, administration, and students, working together with "mutual respect and appreciation," said Jennings.
And from English Professor Jerry Blitefield: "This has brought to the forefront people who labor behind the scenes, are not often recognized, really know their stuff, and are articulate about it."
Facilities director Ferguson is one such person. Since arriving at UMass Dartmouth nearly three years ago, he has observed a major upturn in support for sustainability, making it easier to enact a variety of measures.
"We've totally revamped recycling, for example," so that the now-familiar blue tub seems to be everywhere and resident students engage in single-stream recycling. More significantly, the university, town of Dartmouth, and the Greater New Bedford Refuse District jointly developed a recycling program that has benefitted all three. The district provided large, roll-off dumpsters for recyclables, while the town provided funds for recycling containers and totes. Dartmouth provides the university with trucking services at no cost, and receives the revenues from the recyclables.
Since its July 1 start, the arrangement has meant more than 25 tons of materials have been recycled.
"We have gone to a 'resource management' attitude, and that's a big change," said Ferguson. Resource management involves closer scrutiny of what kind of waste is generated, and exploration of improved methods to manage or reduce that waste. Currently, the university is weighing several haulers' proposals on how they would work with UMass Dartmouth to manage waste better yet preserve a profit margin for themselves. "So in the end, we would both win."
While plans were in place before it occurred, the economic meltdown has given new urgency to efforts to stem energy use. Nearly $600,000 in savings had been realized at publication time through, among other things, updated equipment and controls, thermostat turndowns, new sensors and light timers, the two-week campus recess between Christmas and New Year's, and an intense conservation mind-set.
The ever-rising savings figure has been displayed in a gauge on the university home page and at the campus entrance. Such a display constitutes a type of "reporting" that is extremely valuable in gathering support, on and off campus, according to Management Professor Adam Sulkowski, who teaches a graduate-level sustainability class. "It's very encouraging to see that we're adopting the best practices of private corporations."
Sulkowski is working with the administration to develop an annual "triple bottom line" report, measuring and reporting the campus' societal, economic, and environmental impacts. "We have to say to our stakeholders that we're taking every step we can to save their money," he said.
Sustainability will be practiced more frequently and more readily as awareness of its benefits grows, Sulkowski believes. He is also convinced that its place in university curricula throughout the world will only increase. Traveling in Warsaw last summer, he met a human resources director for a global corporation. After mentioning his sustainability course, "she told me that she has no interest in applicants unless they know about sustainability."
Dr. Robert Peck, College of Engineering dean, has a similar conviction about the rightful place of sustainability studies, particularly in engineering programs. "Engineers are problem-solvers. Technology is an integral part of the whole process of sustainability." There is a growing demand for engineers who have been taught to be sensitive to the environment and know how to use resources prudently. Peck encourages faculty to weave sustainability into their course offerings, and says accreditation associations now take note of sustainability education.
"And the students are very interested in this," as evidenced by the number of recent senior engineering design projects with sustainable technology at their core. "We want our graduates to be good citizens. Part of that is having an awareness of what is happening around you," he said.
Peck, closely involved with sustainability efforts since coming to UMass Dartmouth in '08, proposed the campus assessment project now underway. Nine committees are examining activities and conditions within specific areas of the university, such as energy sources, conservation measures, water consumption and wastewater management, and green custodial practices. It is an ambitious undertaking, and the results will guide the university's future direction on sustainability in all of its aspects.
The project further links all segments of the university community, giving even more structure to the sustainability efforts. It may also bring into focus leadership opportunities for UMass Dartmouth, particularly in the academic arena, Peck suggests.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Peck became both knowledgeable and concerned about the environment. "I could see the impact that a huge urban area has on the environment ... I also developed a strong appreciation for the wilderness. I was, and am, a camper. I've always been very environmentally conscious-it's a personal interest."
David Ferguson says much the same thing: "I love the outdoors. I want to protect the environment, so that my daughter can enjoy it, so we can all enjoy it."
In combining their professional and personal personae, Peck and Ferguson are typical of many individuals involved with the university's sustainability work. "They talk about this as the favorite part of their job. They enjoy it," said Jennings, whose position inspired her to try gardening; she discovered, to her own surprise, "I actually like it."
Some people fear that today's fiscal straits have made sustainability a bandwagon issue, one whose popularity may wane as the economy improves. Jennings is more optimistic, seeing a commitment among young people, as evidenced by the heavy enrollment in sustainability courses. "Students don't see this as a matter of taking away stuff. They see that sustainability is concerned with less consumerism, having your needs met by living in a neighborhood, and having a sense of purpose."
Political science major Brittany Filker backs her on that. Filker has taken several sustainability classes "because they are really relevant to what is going on today in the world. You don't have to have a background in environmental science to understand what is happening and why this is important.
"I think a large amount of students are engaged, and as students become older, they become more responsible about recycling and conservation and causes such as this."
Clean energy technology is mission of university partnership with GreatPoint Energy
Eight engineering students are learning about the development of clean energy technology thanks to a partnership between UMass Dartmouth and GreatPoint Energy, a company that converts coal, petroleum coke, and biomass into clean natural gas.
The company is using some of the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center to continue development of its "hydromethanation" technology. The collaboration, in combination with GreatPoint Energy's commissioning of the Mayflower Clean Energy Center, a first-of-its-kind gasification demonstration plant in Somerset, signifies the firm's commitment to make Massachusetts a major center for clean energy technology, research, and development.
Hydromethanation also allows other technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, to be tested at the facility, according to Daniel Goldman, GreatPoint Energy's executive vice president and chief financial officer. "We are extremely proud and excited to contribute to the education of UMass Dartmouth students who will get firsthand experience working with our engineering team to develop cleaner, more efficient methods for producing energy. This partnership between UMass Dartmouth and GreatPoint Energy is intended to foster the next generation of clean energy innovators and we are pleased to play a role that leverages our Mayflower project for the betterment of the Commonwealth."
The interns are excited about gaining insight that will prepare them for careers in the emerging green economy.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of an up and coming company that is paving the way for future energy production," said Justin McKennon, an electrical engineering and mathematics major from Springfield. "It has been, and will continue to be, one of the best experiences of my life."
McKennon has learned about pipes, tools, boilers, pressure and all the trouble-shooting that goes into such a large scale project. "I usually shadow the full-time employees and learn procedure and protocol. When things go wrong, I help fix them or learn how to fix them in hopes that I'll be able to fix them on my own someday."
Jill Mercik, an electrical engineering major from Belchertown, had an internship last summer with Northeast Utilities, which sparked her interest in energy conservation and 'going green.' She sees the GreatPoint Energy experience as an opportunity to expand on that. "What's nice about working at GreatPoint is that the work changes everyday," Mercik said. "I have helped with maintenance, repair, and testing of different equipment in the tower as well as helping to build the company's internal website."
Brent Cordeiro, a mechanical engineering senior from Dartmouth, makes the "rounds" with the company's engineers, checking gauges and ensuring that the equipment is functioning properly. His duties also involve miscellaneous tasks to help the plant operate smoothly on a day-to-day basis. "So far, the experience has been very positive," Cordeiro said. "The employees are patient and are more than happy to explain what is going on to us."
Michael Lenzuolo, an electrical engineering major from Mendon, said that he has learned much about plant operation and synthesis by observing the final construction and daily operation. "I wanted to do something novel, something that had never been done before. I also saw a lot of potential in this company. I feel their process is a great step in the direction of green energy."
Other interns include mechanical engineering majors Matthew Bach, Dartmouth; Brandon Cardoza, Westport; and Briana Flocco, Wrentham; and electrical engineering major Jeffrey Towers, Pocasset.
"This is a great partnership that pairs one of our leading clean energy companies and our state university to train the engineers this vital new industry needs for the future," said Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles.
Sustainability measures are critical part of global health care initiatives, says Nursing Professor Jeanne Leffers
When nurses provide health care and medical aid in impoverished countries, they must ask themselves: can our work be sustained?
So believes Nursing Professor Jeanne Leffers, whose field of expertise centers on global and environmental health issues. After 12 trips to impoverished countries-Uganda being the most recent-Dr. Leffers has a singular perspective on sustainability as it relates to health care.
"Obviously, you can't sustain healthy populations without looking at, and taking care of, the earth and vice versa," said Leffers. That conviction, as well as her long-standing interest in public and environmental health, prompted her to join other faculty in developing UMass Dartmouth's sustainability studies program.
She was one of the five professors who taught the spring '07 inaugural Topics in Sustainability course that centered on the connection between food and sustainability. In her teaching stint, Leffers focused on the threat to a population's long-term health and stability posed by, among other things, malnutrition, unsafe food practices, and an unhealthy environment.
Leffers has seen all of those in her trips to poor, undeveloped regions, where she and other health professionals bring medical attention and advice to persons generally deprived of both. That work has raised a concern: "More and more health care providers go on a mission to another country to provide services, but some do not have the components to insure the work can be sustained.
"Sustainability has to be a part, or you can do more harm than good. What we do should be driven by the needs of the people, rather than the attitude that 'we're a savior for these people.' We have to deal with issues that involve, for example, short-term, rural clinics that are established and bring care but with no plan for continuity of the clinic's work."
Leffers traveled to Uganda last year through Health Volunteers Overseas, a national organization that bolsters the sustainability level of aid missions through its "teach the teachers" emphasis. Leffers advised on the nursing curriculum and taught pediatric nursing faculty, who in turn can teach prospective Ugandan nurses how to give modern nursing care in less than ideal settings. She also worked with nurses at Mulago Hospital, and, during a return trip to Uganda in January, brought educational materials that "were relevant to their particular situations."
Via the Internet, Leffers continues her consultant role with faculty at Makerere University's Department of Nursing.
Sustainability has become a critical issue in public health, said Leffers, owing largely to the dire situations in many countries and the increased number of well-intentioned, yet short-lived, initiatives of aid.
"Most of the literature stresses that you must plan for sustainability. What happens when people, and money, go away? How will the help be sustained?
"There's also the issue of teaching. You cannot simply say, 'do this because it is the better way.' Rather, you show that you value their perspective and you share expertise, presenting evidence that indicates there may be a better way.
"You also have to deal with the reality that, if a community does not have access to a particular piece of equipment or item, what is the best way then that it can effect this 'better way?'
"And how can we empower people to advocate for the improvements they need? That's all part of sustainability."
Engineering students get global perspective on conservation measures and energy usage
Ten engineering majors took advantage of an innovative, intense study abroad program during this year's winter break to study renewable energy, European-style.
The group spent three weeks at International Winter University, held at the University of Kassel, Germany, exploring topics that ranged from solar and wind energy, to rational energy usage, from a German and European perspective. What they learned in class was bolstered by the knowledge they acquired by living with German families and seeing firsthand that country's conservation practices.
Acquiring an international perspective on matters such as renewable energy is an invaluable part of a contemporary engineering education, said Dr. Tesfay Meressi, associate dean of the Engineering College. "Many of our students understand engineering as a global profession and recognize the importance of studying abroad in today's increasingly interdependent world."
For senior mechanical engineering major Steve Boyko, "we are heading into a time where renewable energy sources are more and more important. This program gave us the opportunity to learn what other countries have been and are doing."
Boyko and the other nine students spent five days a week, for three weeks, in class. While they studied German language and culture for several hours a week, the bulk of their time was spent on engineering and energy-related subjects.
With other students from throughout the globe, they explored the status of-and potential for-solar, wind, and hydro power.
"We talked about a lot of different aspects. For example, we learned about energy generation in terms of its regional aspect and transmission difficulties across regions. We also learned about the business side of energy, something that engineers are not always expected to consider but is very important," said Boyko.
"It definitely broadened my perspective. I want a career in the crane and rigging industry, and that will involve dealing with international products."
Living with German families and traveling throughout the area gave students less formal, but equally valuable, insights into energy conservation measures in other countries. In Boyko's opinion, "they're pretty far ahead of us." Automobiles are generally far smaller, and public transportation more popular and efficient.
"They also make it easier for you to recycle," said Boyko. Cans and bottles can be returned, individually, virtually anywhere and the customer is reimbursed on the spot. "You'd be on the train and when you finish your Coke, you just return it there and get your 25 cents." The ubiquitous public trash cans have four openings to accept, separately, glass, paper, plastic, and other items. Residents automatically shut off their water heaters when leaving their homes in the morning; light timers and switches are placed at both ends of a stairwell so "the lights turn off automatically and you don't have to remember it.
"It seems that being conservation-minded comes more naturally there."
A similar experience organized by the International Programs Office enabled other students to spend two weeks in Wolfsburg, Germany, this month, exploring alternate energy systems in European Union countries and visiting the Wolfsburg Volkswagen headquarters located in that city.
Students stepping up for conservation and recycling initiatives
10 large boxes of food, and 50 bags of clothing.
What students left behind when they departed from the residence halls last spring has inspired an impressive recycling project. The Housing and Residential Life Office worked with the Student Senate and United Way to transfer those disposed items to community groups. This year, a similar effort is underway so that area shelters and centers will benefit, said Robin Brow, the office's operations manager.
In both the residence halls and the dining areas, the university has embarked on a variety of such sustainability initiatives. More and more students are engaging in recycling practices, are enthusiastic about conservation measures, and are joining organized efforts to make UMass Dartmouth more green.
- Following a successful four-hall pilot program, all residence halls have gone to "single-stream" recycling, which is expected to keep nearly 70 tons of recyclables out of landfills. Students place their recyclable items-cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, even binders-into blue, reusable tote bags that are then emptied into giant dumpsters. This "all in one place" approach makes it easier for students to embrace recycling and thus reduce waste on campus.
- In the new Green Navigators program, students are developing and implementing projects and campaigns to interest and involve more of their peers in recycling and conservation. The first group of navigators has emphasized education, traveling throughout residence halls to talk with students and answer questions.
- The university signed on to "Recycle-Mania" this year, competing with 500-plus schools to determine which can collect the largest amount of recyclables and generate the least trash. A smaller competition pitted UMass Dartmouth's residence halls against one another, with Oak Glen coming out ahead.
- In the four original halls, new water aerators have reduced water usage by 1,600 gallons daily. LED lighting of exit signs has meant a $6,800 annual savings. Hall lights are on sensor timers.
- Sodexho-operated dining facilities now send nearly 200 pounds of pre-consumer food waste a week to nearby SilverBrook Farm. Commuter cafeteria diners can purchase $5 reusable eco-clam shells for take-out food. A switch to green cleaners has substantially reduced water and energy usage in the dishroom.
Brow said student participation in recycling and complementary measures "has been great. We're seeing more and more of it. It's been mainly an issue of education and getting the word out. Interest has definitely grown, especially with the Green Navigators program."
Students use recycling, conservation to learn principles of management
Sound management principles ... responsible business practices ... collaboration and consensus ... recycling, conservation, environmental awareness ... community outreach.
All of these come together in Professor Kellyann Berube Kowalski's "Developing and Managing Work Teams" course, where the environment is the vehicle for teaching business majors about teamwork and performance. Combining theoretical knowledge and practical application, the class uses an innovative, yet academically challenging, way to prepare seniors for a business world that emphasizes a group approach to projects.
- The spring class, divided into teams and partnering with community groups, constructs floats that are environmentally-themed and "people-powered" for the April Earth Day parade held in downtown New Bedford on AHA! (Art, History & Architecture) evening. Floats must use recycled materials as much as possible and the overall project must demonstrate "sustainability," or what Kowalksi calls a "lasting effect." Students have been pretty ingenious; one group designed a Noah's Ark with youngsters from the Boys & Girls' Club dressed as endangered animals.
- The fall class, again in teams, works with a school in New Bedford or Dartmouth, as well as those communities' recycling coordinator, to develop projects celebrating America Recycles Day. Students teach one or more classes about the value of recycling, and discuss ways the youngsters can incorporate conservation measures into their lives. Last semester, one team had fifth graders write a "book" on the subject, then read that book to first-grade classes. Recyclable materials were turned into musical instruments, toys, and craft items in other classes.
"The management majors do enjoy it, and a lot will say it was a great experience," said Kowalski, an '87 UMass Dartmouth graduate. Yet it is a demanding course, with reading assignments, 10 quizzes, several written and oral presentations on the projects, and a reflection paper on the dynamics, effectiveness, and success-or lack thereof-of their teams.
"By their senior year, students know about teamwork but they need the opportunity to actually work in teams," Kowalski explained. "This class helps them learn about leadership, how to assess skills of the team members, how to translate a plan into action, how to resolve conflict.
"More and more business organizations work in a team mode. Efforts are collaborative. These projects enable students to see that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
"There is a side benefit, of course, for the environment," said Kowalski. In designing the course, she wanted students to tackle meaningful issues, and Deirdre Healy, community service coordinator, suggested that projects center on environmental issues. That makes sense given that "more and more companies are making a commitment to sustainability and are focused on being 'green,'" Kowalski said.
The link to community groups is also valuable, said Kowalski; students are putting into practice one of the fundamental concepts of the Charlton College curriculum-"that we want business to act responsibly, be a good citizen, and give to the community."
"It was an awesome experience," said senior Danielle Carew, whose five-member team spent much of last fall with fifth graders at New Bedford's Ottiwell School. After several class discussions with the university students, the Ottiwell pupils designed a book with text and drawings on recycling.
"The fifth graders really wanted to learn more about recycling. With that as the subject, you can go in a lot of different ways in developing programs," said Carew, who endorses recycling as a focal point because of its timely and meaningful nature.
"I think we worked well as a team, although each of us is very different from one another. The project helped us learn about communication and how to manage our time."
For nursing major, recycling means aid to native country
There's a lot more to recycling than cans of soda and plastic bottles. Ask student Myriam Jeannis, whose rescue mission proves just that.
Alarmed by the devastation wrought by hurricanes in her native Haiti, Jeannis has spearheaded campaigns on and off campus to aid the impoverished country. She and fellow students in the Haitian American Student Association regularly collect donated clothing and items such as books, games, and toys that, recycled, are improving life for Haitians.
With generous support from UMass Dartmouth students and employees, the campaigns have had remarkable results: the association funds school supplies for roughly 90 children in Haiti, and now covers the school bills for 20 of them.
"We always say that we can't help everyone, but we can make a change in one person's life. Then that will continue so that more lives can be changed," explained Jeannis, who carries a double major in nursing and French.
Six years ago, at the age of 18, Jeannis left her hometown of Gonaives to settle in Boston. After graduating from Hyde Park High School, she entered UMass Dartmouth through the alternative admissions program College Now. One day during her freshman year, she and friend O'Mara Antoine, a junior engineering major, were having one of their continuing conversations about Haiti's dire situation-homes and schools toppled, an unhealthy environment, and widespread despair.
"I just thought, 'why don't we do something to help out?'" Jeannis recalled. Encouraged by College Now counselors and Community Service Office Director Deirdre Healy, she organized different initiatives and concentrated on rounding up educational materials for Haitian youngsters.
Among the more successful efforts on campus is the spring "dorm-storming," when Haitian Student Association members visit the residence halls for donations of items and money. "We have so much support here on campus. Students here are very, very helpful and generous, and we get a lot of support from the resident assistants," said Jeannis, herself an RA.
Jeannis brought her first collection of recyclables to Haiti in the summer of '07. Last summer, 10 other students accompanied her, staying at Port-au-Prince and traveling daily to Gonaives. There the students took on various tasks: distributing articles, teaching and reading to youngsters, helping on construction projects, and, in Jeannis' case, assisting at a medical clinic. Students intend to repeat the two-week trip this summer.
"It's so rewarding to go there and see all the children learning and reading because they are able to go to school," said Jeannis.
"I feel that we are doing what that old saying is about. We could give a child the fish. But by helping them with school, we are teaching them how to fish."
Challenging students to consider different viewpoints heightens the appeal of sustainability classes
Do we consider the natural world "feminine," which would explain terms such as "Mother Nature?" And if that's the case, do we then think of the environment as "submissive," subject to the whims of a male-dominated society?
Recognizing sustainability as an emerging, important academic field, 30-plus faculty from 25 disciplines-from civil engineering, to philosophy, to graphic design-came together two years ago to develop the minor and teach the approximately 17 courses now offered. This interdisciplinary nature represents a key strength of the minor, giving it depth and bolstering its appeal to students.
"It's really interesting because we're studying the subject from different aspects. The course has five distinct modules and I enjoy the conversations and the debates," said student David Neitz, history major, sustainability minor, and ardent environmentalist.
The minor encompasses a "Topics in Sustainability" course and a seminar, and an array of electives, such as "Designing for the Environment," "Planet Earth," "Environmental Science and Business," and "Social Impact of Science and Technology." Students in the classes come from a range of majors, and professors from a variety of disciplines. And in the foundational Topics course, five professors alternate teaching stints, examining the sustainability implications of one specific subject, such as water or food; this past semester, the subject was "Perception, Representations, and The World," with faculty from English, philosophy, design, marketing, and economics teaching. The result: students explore sustainability as a multi-dimensional issue that shapes and relates to virtually every aspect of life.
"We want this minor to be academic in nature," explained Professor Jerry Blitefield, who was instrumental in the minor's establishment and was lead-off instructor for the spring '09 sustainability topics class. "We want students to develop their critical thinking, and get them to see there are consequences to their actions and decisions.
"In terms of critical thinking, sustainability crosses so many disciplines. It works well as a minor because we want everyone to think that the subject is theirs." As an English professor, Blitefield can explore the rhetoric aspects of sustainability, "looking at how we are persuaded to engage in certain behaviors. Why do we want what we want, like bigger cars, bigger houses?" Or he can tackle it from a literature perspective: "How are our interpretations of nature influenced by literature?"
The courses are not intended to promote any political position, he said. "As an academic, I don't want that role."
In one class this spring, Blitefield and the 25 students first debated popular perspectives of the physical world. In the 19th century, for example, the wilderness was something to be "tamed," whereas today, people talk of "living close to nature" in positive terms. Later, students discussed images each had chosen that reflect their perceptions, and concerns, regarding the environment.
For David Neitz, that image came from the poster for "Wall-E," the 2008 animated film that centers on a single robot cleaning up a trashed planet Earth. The message for Neitz was "we are ruining our earth. Humans are reliant on technology to clean up after them, but this is saying that ultimately you have to clean up after yourself."
The flourishing interest in being "green" is not the only reason that sustainability courses are routinely over-enrolled, Blitefeld suggested. "There are students who see there is a future in this, that there are actual careers. Corporations have recognized that sustainability is important. They're developing green products and they have to do marketing. We have business students who are not only involved in green issues, they also want to do marketing."
The subject matter, and the rigor of the courses, appealed to sophomore Brittany Filker. "Sustainability is really relevant with all that's going on today, particularly in light of the financial crisis," said the political science major. "I think society is at a crossroads now, and I feel we all have a responsibility to learn more about this.
"The topics course is great. Students don't have to have a background in environmental science to understand the subject, and it's relevant to all sorts of people. In class this week, with (Philosophy) Professor Jennifer Mulnix, we talked about ethics and the debate was over flooding a forest with the ecosystem suffering in order to provide hydroelectric power. It was a question of which is the greater good.
"Normally, I'd be on the side of the environment, but this wasn't so easy. I love that. It made me think in a different way, learn a different perspective.
"For me, that's a successful class."
Sustainability issues at the heart of work done by scientists at SMAST
The educator scientists at the School for Marine Science and Technology daily confront core issues of sustainability as they conduct their research. Their work involving estuaries, fisheries, and the challenges to aquatic systems frequently raises basic questions on the continuing balancing act between the preservation of the natural world and human needs. Three of those scientists speak about their fields of expertise, and the sustainability aspect thereof-, in the following pieces.
Preserving the coastline
"All around the world," Brian Howes said, "we are seeing significant declines in coastal systems. Our job is to figure out how people can continue to live there and still maintain the quality of environment that drew them to the coast in the first place."
The SMAST professor has been studying estuaries long enough to remember a different time. "When I entered this field, we spent our time trying to determine which estuaries had to be protected and which had to be restored, and if there was a problem, what was causing it.
"Now nearly all our estuaries are beyond simply needing protection; they all are in various stages of decline and require remediation."
Howes is director of the Coastal Systems Program, the scientific arm of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, which is assessing the nitrogen status of 89 Massachusetts estuaries, coastal basins where salt and fresh water mix.
Nitrogen is the prime culprit in estuarine degradation. It is a crucial nutrient, but an excess sparks a cascade of negative effects, ultimately threatening everything we value in the system. And most Massachusetts estuaries have been absorbing excess nitrogen for a long time.
"Without restoration," said Howes, "we face wholesale loss of these critical resources, and of the fish, shellfish, and bird life that depend on them. On the other hand, the up side is that once we restore them, we know how to maintain them in perpetuity.
"And there are a number of options available to us in our search for the cheapest route to restoration-not just building treatment plants and sewers, but opening channels, managing storm-water ... . Even restoring freshwater ponds and wetlands can reduce the nitrogen load that reaches the estuary. Several of our more innovative restoration technologies-'green solutions' that don't require sewering or treatment plants-are now in their first implementation so that we can refine them for regional use.
"Our group is providing quantitative restoration targets with a high degree of accuracy. And we are moving forward with solutions, right now. A number of communities are already working on restoration. For several estuaries, the fixes are in place, or being put in place, that will restore them over the next several years."
Balancing the economic and environmental challenges of commercial fishing
For Dr. Kevin Stokesbury, a string of "fundamental questions" comprises the focus of his work.
"How many sea scallops are out there? How fast do they grow? How many young are produced per year? How fast do they die? How many can you harvest? How many can you harvest sustainably?
"We try to use new scientific methods and techniques to better estimate those numbers," he said. "Without that information, you'll never get at sustainability."
Stokesbury grew up in rural Nova Scotia, where he learned early lessons about sustainability on his grandfather's farm. "Farmers practice their own version of rotational management, leaving a field fallow every few years so that it can rejuvenate."
He arrived at UMass Dartmouth in 1998 with an impressive range of experience, having worked with scallops, sea urchins, lobsters, seaweeds, and several finfish species. But among Massachusetts fisheries, scalloping is king, and scalloping was in trouble here. Stokesbury was soon leading the SMAST surveys that have played such a significant role in the rebounding of the sea scallop fishery. Not satisfied with the uncertainties of traditional trawl sampling, he and colleague Prof. Brian Rothschild, collaborating with industry, devised an innovative video survey system that is used for annual surveys of the entire U.S. Atlantic sea scallop resource.
Now associate professor and chair of the Department of Fisheries Oceanography, Stokesbury remains dedicated to his research. His research group at SMAST is simultaneously conducting studies into the biology, behavior, and ecology of the sea scallop.
"The better we know the sea scallop," he said, "the better we can manage it to the benefit of both the ecosystem and the industry that depends on it.
"We have to preserve what's there, but we also have to harvest it before it dies of old age. Achieving that balance is the key to sustaining both the fish stocks and the fishing industry."
Predicting the impacts of global warming
Mark Altabet heads SMAST's Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory, which specializes in measuring stable isotope ratios, a technique which can reveal otherwise inaccessible clues about the source and transformation of the material under analysis. A central theme of his research involves a better understanding of the nitrogen cycle, its past and present behavior, and the impact of human activity upon it.
"Where population is concentrated along rivers and at the coast," Altabet said, "there are large inputs of nitrogen to coastal aquatic systems. Extra nutrient input might sound like a good thing, but it throws the system out of balance. It lowers the oxygen in near-bottom waters, affecting benthic organisms, such as clams and oysters, negatively impacting recreational uses, and damaging the overall environment.
"There are still major unanswered questions regarding how nitrogen inputs lower dissolved oxygen levels. Our new work in Long Island Sound (funded this year by the EPA/Sea Grant) will try to tease apart the physical contributions from the biological contributions to oxygen depletion."
In parallel with this work, Altabet's group is also studying the interactions between marine biogeochemistry and climate change, looking at modern ocean processes and reconstructing past changes in the marine nitrogen cycle in relation to past climate change. Their recent and current work off the Peruvian coast along the Peru margin focuses on variability on scales from hundreds to tens of thousands of years.
"To predict the future impacts of global warming," Altabet said, "we need to understand past natural variability so that we don't confuse natural effects with anthropogenic effects. One of the possible effects of global warming may be to greatly expand low-oxygen zones in the ocean. The Peru margin has a natural region of low-oxygen waters that is very climate-sensitive. To address this issue, we are working to understand the mechanisms linking climate change to the extent of the low-oxygen region."
Design professor using art to raise awareness of Ecuador's issues of sustainability, ecosystem
Photographing community gardens in his Easton hometown, Design Professor Spencer Ladd realized it was a "therapeutic" activity he was witnessing. No one depended on the food to survive, and considerable amounts were often left to rot.
"It started me thinking. How are gardens used by people really who need them? Where in the world do they really matter?"
Ladd found his answers in Ecuador's northern Andes, where he has traveled extensively to photograph rural farmers who rely on their small farms and gardens to sustain themselves and their families.
What is happening in the Andes is a snapshot version of global sustainability issues, said Ladd. How does a community support itself in the present yet preserve its natural resources for future generations? What happens when the promise of better jobs for poor people threatens the environment?
Ladd is using art to explore these issues, believing that the artist can contribute to sustainability awareness as much as any scientist or engineer. Working both on his own and with an Andean consortium, Ladd has been photographing the Ecuadoran people and lands over the past 18 months. The visual documentation serves to illuminate in dramatic fashion critical sustainability questions.
"I've thought very hard and for a long time about the ways in which visual communication can effect social change, especially in terms of the environment. Now I have the opportunity to do that."
Motivated by his Easton observations, Ladd began research that eventually took him to Imbabura, Ecuador, located in what Conservation International labels a tropical Andes "hotspot." Ladd has traveled to Imbabura three times (most recently in January), spending 10 to 14 days on each trip. With help from environmentalist and Imbabura resident Nicholas Peter Shear, Ladd visits farmers who have "truly kitchen gardens in that the kitchen door really does open up on to them.
"This is an area of high biodiversity. The Andes is like a quilted pattern of farms. The land has mostly been cultivated and there is little of pristine nature left. Most mountain farmers are poor, and some lack education in sustainability practices."
The degree of poverty is matched by the fragility of the ecosystem, said Ladd, thus spawning the typical debates over how best to use natural resources - to sustain the present residents or to protect them for future generations. Simultaneously, mining, timber, and narcotics interests, along with increased urbanization, are threatening those resources.
"Yet, awareness of the importance of mountain agriculture appears to be limited," said Ladd, who hopes his photographs can trigger an emotional response that would lead to greater understanding and advocacy. "The photos represent the people and places in a way that is clear and easy to understand. We need to educate both the indigenous people and the world in general. I feel these can help the scientific community make its message more compelling."
Ladd's Andean initiative serves also to enlighten his design students. "I want them to reconsider what some may think a graphic designer can do. This shows them that the designer does not work only in advertising or for commercial enterprises. Why can't the designer advocate for something?"
Ladd, who exhibited his work on campus in 2007, brings his photos of the Andean paramo (the fragile mountain ecozone) to next month's World Paramo Congress, which will draw roughly 700 people from the U.S., South America, and Africa to Loja, Ecuador.
"When students ask if an artist can use art to also be an advocate, I can show them what I've done, and demonstrate that your work as an artist can be used beyond your profession."
Diane Hartnett is a writer in the Publications Office.
This article first appeared in the UMass Dartmouth Magazine.