Institute on the Environment Discovering Solutions the World's Environmental Challenges Thu, 28 Jul 2016 16:36:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sustainable Shelter: Dwelling in the natural world Tue, 26 Jul 2016 20:47:31 +0000 Shelter is an essential aspect to both human and animal life. Throughout time we have evolved and created building innovations and technologies to improve shelters. This summer at the Bell Museum of Natural History, the Sustainable Shelter exhibit provides a window through which visitors can see the many characteristics of shelter in both the human and natural world. The installations range from sustainable construction options to the intricate and remarkable engineering of a termite mound.

An anthill removed from the the earthWalking into the exhibit visitors find themselves in a house frame that has windows looking into animal living spaces. Don Luce, the curator of exhibits at the Bell, explained that “Buildings are an adaptation to the environment we need to recognize, so we tried to compare human structures to animal structures.” Throughout the installation you can see the comparisons between the natural and human world. For example, a harvester ant colony nest poured in aluminum takes up most of a wall in the exhibit and marvel at the amazing and beautiful world ants call home.

In addition to seeing the many structures and shelters of the natural world, visitors can learn a little bit about the resources and energy that go into human homes. Interactive installations answer the questions, “What’s the big deal with carbon?” and “How is your home part of the Earth’s energy system?” Most of the displays are kid-friendly and accessible to curious young minds. Popular items include the “build your own sustainable home” feature, as well as the thermal glass display, where visitors can stick their hand under heat lamps to compare the effectiveness of different glazed glass used in many homes.

One of the most fascinating layouts is the showcase and comparison of the environmental impact that American homes have had over time. In the mid-1800s homes were less than 400 square feet, whereas today they can exceed 2,500. Square footage isn’t the only increase; pounds of CO2 emissions have almost quadrupled from a little more than a century ago. It’s eye-opening to realize the impact that our homes can have on the natural world around us. “People should think about their house as being part of a larger system,” Luce explained. “Once they think from that point of view, they can see the bigger picture and learn to appreciate the impact more.”

Come see the functions of shelter and the effects our homes can have on the world, and pick up advice on how we can make our homes more ecologically sustainable and efficient at this limited time exhibit.

Sustainable Shelter is open through August 21 at the Bell Museum of Natural History.


Photos courtesy of Don Luce and Lauren Schultz

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A day on the farm from one intern’s perspective Thu, 21 Jul 2016 17:46:41 +0000 I’m thankful for Minnesota summers. The days are filled with bright blue skies, warm temperatures, sounds of chirping birds and bumblebees happy to pollinate our abundant landscape of flowers and plants. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by all of these things when I’m working alongside 11 fellow interns outside at Cornercopia, a certified organic farm run by students and one lovely leader, Courtney Tchida, on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ St. Paul campus.

Our days on the farm begin outside by the toolshed, where we lather up on sunscreen and gather any tools and gloves necessary for morning tasks. Depending on the day, Courtney has handy a list of tasks that need to be completed among the team members. In May and June, there’s always a lot of planting and field work prep to do. As we enter July, our days are filled with harvesting, weeding and general maintenance. One of my favorite parts about interning at Cornercopia is that the majority of work is done through teamwork. When we are planting, we each take on different roles such as measuring out the rows, raking, placing the plants in the holes, or “tucking the plants in” (which just means covering any exposed root parts with soil).

red berriesAs an intern, I assist in the daily operations on the farm work as a marketing and food composting manager. In this position, I have the opportunity to interact with the customers  that purchase our produce. With the help of two other market interns, we are in charge of running the farmers market on the St. Paul campus from 2 to 5 p.m. and the University of Minnesota’s farmers market from 11 to 2 p.m. every Wednesday through October 8. The market in St. Paul is done in conjunction with the meat and dairy sales through the Andrew Boss Lab of Meat Science, and the market in Minneapolis is located right by the McNamara Alumni Center. Come and check us out at either location!

Other interns on the farm work on coordinating our awesome volunteers, doing outreach to local schools and summer programs for tours, researching ginger (yes, we are growing ginger, turmeric and galangal root here in Minnesota!) and tending to our 300 broiler chickens that will be ready in fall.

Interested in volunteering or taking a tour of the farm? Contact us at We’re always looking for help harvesting, weeding and planting! We guarantee a relaxing, fun staff of interns to work with.

If you are looking to dig into the “dirty” details of organic farming, consider applying for an internship position next summer. Applications usually come out in mid-March and are due in April. Can’t commit to a whole summer? The University offers a class titled Student Organic Farming: Planning, Growing and Marketing (HORT 3131), taught by professor Julie Grossman and our manager, Courtney Tchida. This year, it will be offered in fall 11:45–12:35 on Tuesday and Thursday, with a lab on Tuesday mornings. Check it out!

In more upcoming news, Cornercopia will be having its annual open house, Wednesday July 27, 6–8 p.m. Come to learn about the farm, take a tour and sample some of the yummy produce we are growing!

Photos courtesy of Moriah Maternoski

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What’s all the buzz about?…Bee Lab’s new building! Tue, 19 Jul 2016 17:56:39 +0000 Bees have been in the news countless times this past year, with articles highlighting the dangers of pesticide use, parasites and diseases, the importance of pollination in food production and tips for beekeeping. Adding to the buzz is the news about the opening of the Bee Pollinator Research Lab on the St. Paul campus. The Bee Lab is part of the University of Minnesota Department of Entomology and has a mission of promoting bee health. I met with Bee Squad member Ana Heck to comb out the details of this exciting new development.

How did you become involved with the UMN Bee Lab?

After I finished my undergraduate program, I was working in Nicaragua for a couple of years with a non-governmental organization called Cantera that did a lot of work around sustainable agriculture. Part of my role with this organization was to work with a cooperative of mostly women beekeepers who were doing beekeeping as way to earn money from honey sales and also working on a sustainable farm that managed over a hundred bee colonies. That’s how I got connected with beekeeping. After I came home to Minnesota, I took a beekeeping course from the UMN Bee Lab. I had just been looking for opportunities to volunteer but got connected with my current position at Bee Squad.

What is your current position at the Bee Squad?

Right now, I’m an education program associate and most of what I do is community outreach mentoring beekeepers. Because I speak Spanish, I get to train some Spanish-speaking beekeeping apprentices. Right now, I have a research grant to work with an urban planning professor on policy and beekeeping ordinances. I also manage bee colonies throughout the city.

Could you tell me a little more about the Bee Squad?

The Bee Squad is the outreach and engagement arm of the Bee Lab, so we work with beekeepers and the public, focusing on education and community outreach. There are various programs within the Bee Squad, including education for beekeepers and veterans on beekeeping and wild bees. Encouraging the public to plant bee-friendly plants is a crucial component of Bee Squad.

What’s new and different about the new Bee Lab buildings?

I actually haven’t been in the new bee lab yet! It will open sometime in August if the development is on time. The Bee Lab has been working in Hodson Hall on the St Paul campus; what’s new and exciting is that we’ll have more space to do research and outreach. We’ll have areas in the building that will host beehives connected to the outside, pollinator gardens and a place for honey extraction. We’ve received a lot of interest from the public on our operation so it’ll be great to have all of this for education.

How can students help out pollinators?

The biggest thing students could do to help is to plant food for pollinators as well as spread the word to others to do the same. Flowering plants that provide good nutrition to bees and do not contain pesticides are the food bees need. Although many students at the university do not have gardens to plant on their own, they may be able to influence their friends and parents to grow important pollinator plants.

(Here is a list of bee-friendly plants)

Are there any upcoming events that you’re excited for?

One event that is coming up is the “Pollinator Party”on Thursday, July 28, from 5-8 p.m. in the Rose Garden near Lake Harriet. Many bee organizations and businesses come together and educate via booths and tables. It’s open to the public and anyone interested in bees. Plus there will be honey ice cream!

I’ve heard you talk about how your work is aimed at wild bees and honey bees. What is the main difference between the two?

Honey bees are social bees which produce much more honey than they need when they have access to enough forage, so most of the work I do with them is checking to make sure they have what they need to be successful. Wild bees, with approximately 400 species in Minnesota, are solitary for the most part. This means that they are more likely to nest in the ground or in stems so their life cycle is different. My work with wild bees is to help them by talking about forage sources and how we can provide for them.

I take it you’ve been stung? Are you not affected by stinging anymore?

It’s pretty rare for me to swell up. I’ve built up a tolerance!

If you would like to know more about Bee Lab, visit their website for events and information!

Photo courtesy of Mary Hannemann

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Five bold ways to revive the Dead Zone and rebuild soils Wed, 13 Jul 2016 14:53:52 +0000 The Mississippi River Basin, one of the largest watersheds in the world, supports food production, transportation and flood regulation across 40 percent of U.S. land area, and provides water to 18 million people in 50 cities. Yet these benefits come at a high price: Conversion of land for agriculture and straightening of the river for transportation, among other management practices, have contributed to massive soil loss, reduction of soil carbon and high levels of nutrient pollution that empties into the Gulf of Mexico, creating the infamous Dead Zone, now the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.

Pressing concerns such as these are not new, and neither is the research into solutions and ideas for funding them. What is new is a method for quickly putting recommended solutions in front of policy makers to influence their adoption and implementation. The University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to solve such “wicked” problems in one-time workshops that bring together experts in economics, finance, policy and conservation, collectively called Wicked Econ Fests.

The first report from these gatherings, published in April, presents five bold ways to revive the Dead Zone and rebuild soils. They are:

  • Couple crop insurance premium subsidies with adoption of beneficial practices for nutrient, water and soil outcomes.
  • Enable private service providers to drive targeted adoption of beneficial practices.
  • Expand and target Farm Bill funding of beneficial practices in high impact areas for reductions in nitrogen loss and soil carbon improvement.
  • Drive ballot initiatives or legislative actions to develop new state funds that support adoption of beneficial practices in high impact areas for reductions in nitrogen loss and soil carbon improvement.
  • Direct post-disaster federal funds toward restoration in high impact areas for reduction in nitrogen and flood risk, and soil carbon improvement.

Taken together, these finance mechanisms could surpass the 2025 interim nutrient reduction goal for managing the Dead Zone, set in 2015 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and contribute meaningfully to the rebuilding of soils and greenhouse gas reductions.

For more information, read the full report.

Photo by Tom Gill (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Northern Spark 2016 meets Grand Challenge curriculum Tue, 12 Jul 2016 15:01:37 +0000 9:00 PM – 5:26 AM – that’s not a farmer’s sleep – wake cycle, but the hours participants revelled along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis for the 2016 Northern Spark Festival. Sponsored by Northern, a Twin Cities art agency focused on interactive, cutting edge projects, Northern Spark took on a theme for the first time this year that will continue through June 2017 – Climate Chaos/Climate Rising, using immersive and collaborative projects to explore climate change and how we live and are shaped by our relationship with ourselves, each other, and nature. If climate change is a symptom of a broken relationship with our place in the natural world, Climate Chaos/Climate Rising is a gift wrapped in a festival wrapped in a crisis that can bring us back to questions we need to ask about consumerism and unlimited growth and how to boldly face and repair damage we have done. All while experiencing connection, joy, insight, and active hope. No small feat.

In this same fair city, the University of Minnesota has taken on a new approach to stubborn, complicated societal issues by creating the Grand Challenge Curriculum, addressing issues like climate change, feeding the world and our energy systems, with interdisciplinary classes such as “Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?” and “Making Sense of Climate Change – Science, Art, and Agency”. As part of the Spring 2016 Making Sense of Climate Change class, participants in the class, myself included, spent the semester on a range of activities, assignments, reflections and explorations, including the creation of a Northern Spark project. We fearlessly and collaboratively examined our relationship with each other, our systems, our own power and deepening our knowledge of the science and the art that can illuminate the path to a system that honors our relationship as creatures in a living system.

We profiled artist change agents who are out there publicly proclaiming the brutish and beautiful relationship we have with each other and our environment, challenging us to honestly look inward and not be lazy or cowardly about our role. We spent thirty powerful minutes each week alone in one place in nature, bringing into minute focus, with just the magnifying glass of observation, the incredible array of life systems right under our feet if we take the time to look away from our screens. We looked at the science of climate change through effects on forests in Northern Minnesota and resilience and vulnerability in our food systems, using the lens of lyrical expression, critical engagement, and transformative action, from the art and environment practice of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, to collaboratively pull the concepts from the dry page to the living breathing systems that are capable of creating lasting societal change. This collaborative aspect of the class was where the magic happened, in our in class projects and ultimately in our creation of our project for Northern Spark, Surrender: What Are We Willing to Lose?, developed over the course of the semester.

White flags are pinned in the ground at the surrender eventSurrender: What Are We Willing to Lose? The question seems negative on the face of it. Surrender sounds like giving up and loss sounds bad. We developed this question as the foundation of our project over the course of the semester, knowing that it is a question that makes us take a hard look at what we have already lost due to climate change and what we fear losing, whether it’s our favorite forest, bird, or ice skating outdoors in winter. As negative as climate change is and feels in our psyche, it also is an opportunity to shift, realign, refocus, renew what it means to be human, a key goal Northern Spark laid out for the next two years.
Surrender can mean letting go of consumption for consumption’s sake, letting go of our blind eye to the effects of our choices on soil, land, air and water. Losing our unwillingness to embrace the interconnectedness of people and systems, as we really see that refugees are us, that war is us, that dirty lakes and litter are us. And if this is true, we have the power to change it. We asked participants to reflect on the question, what are we willing to surrender to fight climate change and/or what do we refuse to surrender to climate change? They wrote their answer on a flag, the symbol of meaning and identity and also surrender.

A wooden horn engraved with the word "Surrender"A path was laid in the grass to an oversized handmade and carved megaphone, crafted by student Xavier Tavera Castro, for people to publicly shout out their proclamation, a way to create agency and accountability for what we have boldly proclaimed. An enclosed circle was created for people to plant their flags as a symbol of our collective effort and power, and turned out to be one of the most visceral and pulsing aspects of the project. Throughout the evening the circle had to be enlarged over and over as over 1500 flags were planted. Participants and passers by crouched at the edge of the circle to see what others had written, proclaimed and promised, others stepped across the boundary into the circle, a visible expression of our desire to be connected to what others are saying they will do – acknowledging the reality of climate change and our agency to band together and address it. One or two or ten flags are a sign, but over a thousand was a resounding in your face of love, action and hope.  My personal statement was surrendering my feeling of powerlessness in the face of climate change. But, there were also sign of reality and what we are up against culturally, with some proclaiming things they would never give up, like long showers. Or laid out bare their fears of losing things that make our hearts break, like a livable planet for future generations of humans and other creatures. There was no denying, though, the overwhelming spectacle and visual and written expression of our awareness of our role in creating and addressing climate change.

And there we have the question that Northern Spark and climate change have laid in front of us and that we humbly, yet boldly tried to answer in our Grand Challenge class. What does it mean to be human in the age of climate change? Can we shift and change our systems and our very selves to face the reality of climate change in ways that make us more effective and compassionate or will we shy away, asking “what can one person do?”. Can we work together with disparate values, goals, and levels of awareness and agency to co-create the necessary change? In the small corner of the world in the classroom at the University of Minnesota, with four professors, seventeen students, 15 weeks of class, and one incredible night of Northern Spark – I can say it is surely possible.

Momentum will continue as we catalog all the responses that were written on the flags, as our pledge of accountability in creating the project. The flags will take on a second life as markers in tree research, our commitment to not creating more waste in the execution of our project. As we catalog, what themes will emerge? What surprises or shocks? What happened at Northern Spark during our project, and all the other projects that same night, that is beyond our comprehension or perception? How can we as students, citizens, professors, university administrators and humans take this project and the question of surrender and loss and their positive and negative facets to another level, whether on our own or as a collective effort? Every day the question is presented and every day, each choice we make and step we take reveals the answer.


Photos courtesy of Kyle Samejima

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Student Stories: Monika Mann Thu, 30 Jun 2016 19:28:19 +0000 Monika Mann is an up-and-coming junior studying Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. This summer she joined the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA) as their Environment Committee Intern. She recently sat down with me to share her experience as an intern thus far.

What is SECIA?:

SECIA is a neighborhood association that was created for the Como Neighborhood in 1994. SECIA’s mission is to maintain and enhance the physical, social, and economic environment of the neighborhood. They strive to do so through programs that serve the community’s present and future needs, through communication, stewardship, and citizen involvement. They strive to foster a sense of community and to promote the neighborhood as a vibrant place to live and work.

How did you come across this internship opportunity?

I first heard about the internship opportunity at the Environmental Career Fair at the University of Minnesota. I saw the booth and got to hear about about SECIA and it sparked my interest for working for them. The most interesting part about the opportunity to me was the community garden that they had. I think urban agriculture is such a great way to improve community involvement as well as an easy way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by eating local.

What are your tasks or duties as an intern at SECIA?

As an intern at SECIA, my duties involve being an assistant to Cody Olson, the head of the organization and the Environmental Committee as well as working in the community garden.  Not only do I spend a couple hours a week working in the community garden, but I also help plan the monthly garden events that are open to the public.

What kind of skills are you gaining from your internship?

My internship has allowed me to gain a wide variety of skills. I have learned about plants as well as general gardening practices. Learning how to build a bread oven has definitely been the coolest part of my internship so far. I have also learned about what it’s like to work for a non-profit and how that is different from a for-profit business. Interning with SECIA, I have realized that the organization is focused on serving the community, without money being the motivator. Many of the events that are put together happen because of a team effort, everyone brings what they can to the table to make it happen.

How do you see yourself applying this internship to your future career or life as a student working in sustainability?

After my internship is over, I know I’ll become a strong advocate for community gardens. I see the importance and value that comes from sourcing your food locally. There’s something incredible about growing and knowing where the food you eat or buy comes from. In my future career, I hope to get businesses to move towards a zero-waste model by using decomposable utensils and take out containers as well as composting instead of throwing food out. This internship experience is allowing me to see how you can transform and create an initiative, such as a community garden, sustainably. As a student, I can encourage my peers to participate in community gardens, and hopefully help them see its value.

What are you most excited about working with SECIA?

I am most excited to get to be a part of a neighborhood committee because of the wide variety of people that it will allow me to interact and serve with. I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people from different backgrounds and walks of life, and am seeing how making these connections creates a positive and enjoyable working environment.

Is there anything that you didn’t expect coming into the internship that you now know and realize?

I didn’t realize how independent my internship was going to be and the position of influence that I would be put in.  I kind of thought that someone was going to hold my hand through the process. The internship has been very much the opposite because of the changes in the organization. Because of this, I feel a lot more confident working on projects  independently and figuring out other jobs to keep myself busy when there are no’t projects that need to be immediately done.

What has been the biggest takeaway you’ve learned/want to learn with the internship?

The biggest take away I have had from this internship aside from my new gardening/bread oven making skills is understanding how important it is to be flexible. SECIA has gone through some staff and location changes this summer which has led my internship to be less structured than I originally thought. These changesd have not stopped SECIA from working hard to improve the neighborhood. The changes have taught me how important it is to be able to roll with the punches, so I can provide support for an organization.

Gazebo with oven

How can students and others get involved with SECIA?

You can email SECIA to find more ways to get involved. We are always looking for more gardeners!

Are there any events happening soon?

Yes! We have monthly events at the garden. Our big pizza event is on July 9th from 5-8 PM. We are opening our bread oven to the public and there will be free pizza! All of the toppings will be from the garden. If you wish to come please RSVP on Facebook so we can provide enough pizza for everyone!

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Backyard phenology: The science right outside our windows Wed, 29 Jun 2016 15:28:38 +0000 On the lightning-lit night of June 11 at Northern Spark, a sleek silver camper opened its doors to anyone wanting to share and record their insights and theories on the climate-changing world we live in. Northern Spark is a dusk-to-dawn arts festival that addresses global climate change. The theme this year was Climate Chaos | Climate Rising. The camper, dubbed Climate Chaser,  was part of an IonE-hosted exhibit called Backyard Phenology: Tracking Nature’s Cycles in a Changing Climate. Phenology is the study of the changing of seasons and the life cycles of plants and animals that coincide with these changes. As an extension of the exhibit, those interested in a year-long phenology event timeline as well as access to the numerous phenology workshops throughout the year were given passports to track their observations.

The masterminds behind this installation are Rebecca Montgomery, forest resources associate professor and IonE fellow; Christine Baeumler, artist and associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts; Kate Flick, educator and graduate student; and Beth Mercer-Taylor, coordinator of IonE’s Sustainability Education program. Here’s an archived stream of the event — the climate chaser appears at minute 23.

One goal of the Backyard Phenology project is to involve the public in scientific research, better known as citizen science. Participants can use indicators such as the emergence of insects, migration of birds and flowering and budding of flowers to track seasonal changes. Tracking the many environmental changes that happen before our eyes, we can better explain the story of the natural world, Mercer-Taylor says.

“A lot of people don’t see themselves as experts, but whether they are out at sporting events or gardening and tending their lawn, they really do have this observational knowledge,” she said. “That realization is very empowering for a lot of people, and it’s a very important step when addressing climate change. By working together through citizen science we can share and tell a more comprehensive story and better explain the happenings in the world right outside our windows.”

Backyard Phenology Handbook

Photo by Christine Baeumler

Throughout the next year, phenology passport users can record their place-based observations at Nature’s Notebook. They can also upload audio and visuals to portray their observations at iNaturalist. These uploads will be incorporated into a multimedia video collage that will be presented at the 2017 Northern Spark festival to be held June 10–11.

If you’d like a Backyard Phenology passport to help observe seasonal changes, fill out a Backyard Phenology passport request or catch the Climate Chaser around town at these upcoming events.

A special thanks goes out to the collaborators that made Backyard Phenology possible: This is Folly, Smart Set, Three Seven, and Maaco Collision Repair and Auto Body Painting. Backyard Phenology sponsors include Make It. MSP, the  Imagine Fund Faculty Awards, the Minnesota Phenology Network and IonE.

Banner photo by Jeff Schad

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Partnership with The Nature Conservancy seeks economic solutions to “wicked” problems Tue, 28 Jun 2016 14:12:49 +0000 This announcement is adapted from the original and republished with permission from The Nature Conservancy.

Conservation faces a moment where the need to be able to bring world-class economics to “wicked” problems on a rapid time scale is paramount. Typical partnerships between universities and nongovernmental organizations often involve lengthy discussion and analysis, sometimes taking years to arrive at useful recommendations.

Opportunities to influence major decisions for conservation, climate change and human well-being increasingly involve issues related to economics, from subsidy design to corporate practice to financing options. In these fast-paced contexts, windows of opportunity arise — and close — quickly.

To break the mold of classic university collaborations and address the need for timely recommendations, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and The Nature Conservancy will facilitate onetime workshops between leading economics, finance, conservation and policy experts to tackle specific, decision-driven challenges. The project leads are Jessica Hellmann, director of IonE; Steve Polasky, University economics professor, IonE fellow and co-founder of the Natural Capital Project; and Heather Tallis, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

The workshops — collectively dubbed Wicked Econ Fests — result in recommendations and the hand-off of advances in economic, finance, policy and conservation thinking to The Nature Conservancy and partners who can drive recommendations to action.

IonE and TNC will host several workshops each year, providing economically viable guidance on a variety of critical environmental issues, such as how to revive the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and rebuild soils, as outlined in the first Wicked Econ Fest report.

Thanks to the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation, founding donor of this innovative partnership.

Photo by piranka (iStock)

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A student’s sustainability story in the hippest city in the world…Berlin! Wed, 22 Jun 2016 19:04:39 +0000 A sea of wind turbines greeted me through my airplane window as I prepared to land in the Tegel Airport of Berlin. The whirling blades lifted my spirits because it was a reassurance that I chose the right city to study sustainability. Berlin is a progressive, green thinking population, but that’s not all it is known for. It has an immense amount of green space for being an urban area, it has many sustainability oases, such as restaurants and community gardens, it contains a rich history juxtaposed with its important role in current events and, last but not least, Berlin contains some of the trendiest, hippest people I’ve ever set my eyes on.

For five months, January to May, I studied in Berlin through a partner institution in the heart of the Kreuzberg District. My mission was to fulfill 12 sustainability credits for my degree, through three different classes: a workshop, project, and seminar. My eight other classmates were from all over the nation, California to Massachusetts, each pairing their sustainability studies with different focuses: transportation, food & agriculture, forestry, political science, public health, etc. For the workshop, the nine of us created a physical product of a closed loop feedback system, which we called “A Bike Powered Garden Wall.”

Watch the powerpoint summary of our work, which includes pictures and a time-lapse video.

During my time in Berlin, I was able to explore many green initiatives in the city, such as community gardens, zero-energy houses, and cafes that serve locally grown food. Something unique about Berlin is that whenever there is an abandoned parking space or vacant lot, an overwhelming amount of people will try to fill it with green life. So even though Berlin has 3.5 million people and a dense urban landscape, it does not feel like a concrete jungle because of the countless parks and grass plots. It is filled with restaurants from various ethnic groups such as Thai, Italian and Turkish. One of my favorite cafes in Berlin was called “Roamers,” a tiny hidden gem that served me a delicious black bean egg mess in a pan with fresh arugula, carrots and other vegetables all grown in Berlin. There are vegetarian and vegan options practically wherever you go.

For anyone studying sustainability, Berlin is a fantastic place to study abroad. Besides being a city that is forward-thinking, it is cheap to live there and many Berliners are quite fluent in English. Although I also continued learning the German language there, nearly every local can speak English (other common languages include Turkish, French and Spanish). I have three pieces of advice for anyone thinking of studying in Berlin:

  1. Rent an apartment off campus or do a homestay. My living situation was similar to a freshman dorm and although I met many interesting and fun American students, I did not meet as many local Berliners as I originally had hoped for.
  2. Wear black, black and more black. Berlin is so incredibly hip. Every person, young and old, dressed to impress. If you want to stick out as American, feel free to bring your brightly colored clothes, fanny packs and university-branded sweatshirts. However, donning dark clothing is a safer bet if you want to blend in.
  3. Know when to zip it. After I lived in Berlin for a while, it was easy to pick out American tourists due to one large factor — noise. They were the ones loudly blabbing on the subway and in restaurants. Be more respectful by following the locals and speak quietly.

Overall I had a life-changing time in Berlin, which left me with unforgettable memories and a bigger belly. I cannot think of a better place for a student studying sustainability to travel to.

In January 2017, the Institute on the Environment is offering a new course to study energy in Duesseldorf, Saerbeck and Muenster. Click here for more information.

Check out the other Learning Abroad options for Sustainability programs here.

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There’s a map for that Wed, 22 Jun 2016 13:52:07 +0000 How far are you willing to travel to visit a clean lake?

When Institute on the Environment’s Natural Capital Project lead scientist Bonnie Keeler wanted to better understand how lake users make decisions about their recreation choices and the value society places on water quality, she turned to U-Spatial, a center that provides technical support and worldwide spatial data — often in the form of highly detailed digital maps — for researchers across the University of Minnesota system.

Using Flickr photos of vacation spots in Minnesota and Iowa and associated information about the photographer’s home location, U-Spatial was able to plot the most likely route vacationers had taken to their destination, allowing Keeler to estimate distance traveled. She found that people are willing to drive farther to recreate on or near cleaner water.

“U-Spatial added so much value to that project,” said Keeler, who has used the study as an example of how unique methods and novel data can be used by water resource managers and other decision makers to prioritize conservation investments.

U-Spatial, part of Research Computing, was established in 2011 with funding from the Office for the Vice President of Research and matching grants from IonE and other University units. So far the staff has worked with 2,000 researchers in 150 departments and centers across campus, offering support to staff, students and faculty. IonE-affiliated researchers and others both benefit and contribute to the resource.

Len Kne, U-Spatial’s associate director, says the most common request is for geocoding — finding latitude and longitude from addresses — to reveal “geographic patterns,” such as crime hot spots or clusters of heart attacks.

“It’s incredibly useful,” says Nicholas Jordan, IonE fellow and agroecology professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Jordan says he has relied on U-Spatial for “collaborative geodesign” in his work to boost the productivity of agricultural landscapes while maintaining biodiversity, water quality and other ecosystem functions.

To be successful, the project Jordan has been leading for the past eight years needed people from all sides of the issue — farmers, watershed planners, community leaders — to fully understand the benefits and trade-offs of, say, converting streamside land to perennial grass. U-Spatial created a platform to help them do that.

“U-Spatial was able to visually show how parts of a landscape relate and how multiple purposes reflect each other” through use of an interactive tool built especially for the project, Jordan said.

This video produced by U-Spatial shows the platform at work.


U-Spatial has access to worldwide remote sensing and satellite imagery through licenses with the Digital Globe Foundation, and demographic and business-related statistics from sources such as Dun & Bradstreet, NAICS and the U.S. census via ESRI ArcGIS. They offer tutorials and workshops on how to use their service as well as offer guidance for other University resources.

The U-Spatial team is developing a new resource for use by anyone affiliated with the University called Data Locker, a spatial database and file storage service. The project recently got a $50,000 funding boost from IonE, among other supporters. The service helps researchers meet the requirements of data management plans and provides help all the way through archiving data when the project is complete.

“Instead of buying a new computer for your project, you can store it in the Data Locker and share it with anyone at the University and beyond,” Kne said. “The IonE funding allowed us to create a new position in the University Libraries, a spatial data curator, who guides researchers through the increasingly complex world of big spatial data.”

Partnering with U-Spatial proved a boon to Keeler, who was recently awarded a grant to expand her social media and travel cost project to look at tens of thousands of lakes across 17 U.S. states. Keeler and Kne have already found other ways to collaborate, including a study of visitation to parks in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and a new water use portal to visualize spatial data on water use in Minnesota.

“It’s the expertise and resources provided by U-Spatial that allow us to scale our work, rapidly build prototypes for new ideas and leverage the latest tools and techniques to solve interesting problems,” Keeler said.

Photo by &#169 MeshaZelkovich (iStock)

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