Institute on the Environment Discovering Solutions the World's Environmental Challenges Tue, 23 Aug 2016 20:17:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What is clean water worth? Mon, 22 Aug 2016 17:38:46 +0000 This article is reposted with permission from Open Rivers and the author, Bonnie Keeler, IonE Natural Capital Project lead scientist.

Minnesotans are fortunate to live in a land rich in water resources. Clean water is part of our sense of place and cultural identity. Abundant water underpins our agriculture, manufacturing and tourism industries. In theory, clean water should be incredibly valuable — water is essential to our lives and livelihoods. In practice, clean water is cheap. Our water bills are a minor household expense and the public can access the majority of our lakes and rivers for free. If clean water is so valuable, then why is it cheap?

It turns out that understanding the true value of water is not an easy task. We don’t purchase units of clear lakes or safe swimming beaches at the store. Even when consumers have to pay for water, scarcity does not always drive up prices. Some of the cheapest water rates in the U.S. are in drought-stricken California. Instead, economists in search of the true value of clean water need to look beyond markets for clues about how people respond to changes in water quality and what we might be willing to pay to protect it.

Value does not equal price

Value is just a representation of how much people are willing to trade to get a little bit more of something else. We express our values in everyday decisions about how to spend our money and time. For example, I might pay $3 for a latte or spend 20 minutes in my car to drive my son to soccer practice. These actions signal the value I place on these goods and activities. However, the prices we pay are not a perfect representation of our true values. I actually value my son’s participation in soccer so much that I would willingly spend 60 minutes in the car to get him to practice, even though I only have to “pay” for 20 minutes. This discrepancy between price and value is one reason why what we are billed by our water utility or the fees we pay to access parks or beaches aren’t accurate representations of the true value of clean water. So how else can we figure out what clean water is really worth?

How much do you love lakes and rivers?

Now think about your behavior with respect to water bodies, particularly the lakes, rivers and streams near your home. What would you be willing to give up in higher taxes for cleaner rivers? How much farther would you drive to swim in a clear lake over a dirty one? The answers to these questions provide some of our only clues to how the public values freshwater resources.

To estimate the public value of clean water, most economists rely on surveys that ask people directly how much they would be willing to pay for cleaner water or healthy rivers. Or they query respondents on their recreational behavior, asking what waters they visited last year and how far they traveled to get there. These pieces of information are critical to understanding how much people are willing to give up in terms of their time and resources to access higher quality lakes or rivers.

The problem with this traditional approach is that surveys are expensive. They also take a lot of time to design, distribute and analyze. The most recent survey data we have on lake users in Minnesota dates back to 1998. Today researchers interested in informing water management decisions want to quickly and cheaply investigate user preferences for clean water over time and space in a way that could deliver value-of-water information to policy makers on demand.

Last year, my colleague Spencer Wood of the University of Washington had a brilliant idea to use photos uploaded to the photo-sharing site Flickr as a way to measure where and how frequently people visit different natural or cultural attractions. The solution satisfies the need for a large sample size with thousands of photos available on the site, which also provides information about where the photo was taken as well as the home base of the photographer.

In a recent study we applied Spencer’s approach to investigate visitation to Minnesota lakes. It worked like this: if a Flickr user uploaded a photo taken within the boundary of a lake and tagged it with the geolocator (the tool that lets users mark the location on a map), we recorded a visit to that particular lake. We combined data on these “photo-visits” with information on users’ home locations to estimate how far they traveled to visit lakes of varying water clarity. We also controlled for other factors such as lake size, amenities, access and proximity to population centers. We found that all else being equal, lakes with greater water quality received more visits than dirtier lakes, and lake users were willing to travel farther (up to an hour more round trip) to visit cleaner, clearer lakes.

Faster, cheaper, but … biased

In our study, social media proved to be a unique, free and quick way of assessing the preferences of lake visitors. These data provided interesting clues to how recreationists value clean water — evidence that was previously unavailable in Minnesota. Of course, social media doesn’t provide all of the information we would like to have and we don’t understand how the behavior of social media users differs from the rest of the public. To address these issues, we started a new project aimed at better understanding how to account for issues of bias and representation in social media that will expand our study to look at tens of thousands of lakes across 17 U.S. states. Our work involves leading economists, social media experts and limnologists exploring how we can adapt standard econometric approaches that rely on specially designed surveys that account for user demographics and location to the comparably uncontrolled and uncertain data generated from social media posts.

Why is it useful to understand the value of clean water?

Despite passage of the Clean Water Act mandating that all waters are “boatable, swimmable and fishable,” an estimated 40 percent of lakes and rivers in Minnesota are classified as “impaired” and unfit for these basic human uses. Efforts to restore watersheds are expensive and public dollars to support those investments are limited. Quantifying the value of clean lakes and rivers is critical in making the case that the potential benefits of clean water protection or restoration exceed monetary costs.

The value of clean water is more than what we pay in the store and more than the cost of bottled water or infrastructure required to clean up degraded waters. Clean water is also worth more than what we reveal through our recreational behavior. To understand the true value of clean water we need additional research on the health effects of drinking polluted water, the loss in property value as lake clarity declines, and the ways changing water quality affects the health and productivity of aquatic ecosystems and waterfowl. Only then will we truly understand what our waters are really worth.

Photo by  Powderruns (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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Student Stories: Rachel Kosse Wed, 17 Aug 2016 16:30:54 +0000 Rachel Kosse starts her senior year this fall at the University of Minnesota studying environmental sciences, policy, & management, focused on corporate environmental management. With involvement in the Environmental Student Association, UMN Energy Club, Sustainable Systems Management Club, Human Rights Program Student Advisory Board, Undergraduate Sustainable Leaders, Greeks Go Green Initiative, and the Food Recovery Network, it’s safe to say Rachel is an active student with a passion for the environment. This summer she is working as a Minnesota Technical Assistance Program intern at the Hennepin County Medical Center working on pollution prevention and, most prominently, water conservation. She took some time out of her busy schedule to tell me more about her internship.

What is the MnTAP internship program?

Each summer MnTAP hires 12-15 student interns with strong technical backgrounds and leadership abilities to participate in pollution prevention projects. Companies around Minnesota collaborate with MnTAP to create waste and energy reduction projects for interns to work on. What’s interesting about MnTAP is the variation among projects and industries, making for a diversified pool of projects that can fit each intern’s experience and interests.

How did you come across this internship opportunity? 

I came across this internship at a job fair. I spoke with the intern who was hosting a poster and discussing the MnTAP experience and I decided to apply. The potential to create my own project and work self-directed sparked my interest initially because there isn’t that kind of opportunity in every internship position. I’ve worked with water a lot in my past experiences such as when I interned with a water treatment plant and an internship with an energy company in their water division, but I’ve never studied healthcare facilities. I was really interested to learn more about sustainability and water efficiency within the healthcare sector.

What are your tasks or duties as an intern at MnTAP/HCMC?

My responsibilities include finding and documenting water savings throughout the downtown campus. So far this has included documenting water reductions as a result of equipment updates, domestic fixture updates, discontinuing the use of cold water to cool discharge water, and potentially reusing the reverse osmosis reject water. Once the water savings are documented, I calculate the cost savings both from decreasing water use and from decreasing the volume of water sent to the sewer. Then I calculate any energy savings if the water was heated.

Student Reading a GaugeWhat kind of skills are you gaining from your internship?

I’m gaining communication skills and technical process skills. I’ve come to understand the intricacies of maintaining the systems for a large downtown hospital. Learning how a reverse osmosis system works or understanding concentration and permeate rates will give me an upper hand when it comes to future work. I also have gained technical skills performing calculations to figure out how much energy is saved in
heating water which I then can convert to cost savings for the company to use and implement. I’ll have to use these calculations and even more so an understanding of how to be able to convert from one piece of information to the next in future problem solving situations.

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

I see myself understanding ways to decrease resource use and increase process efficiencies more than I had in the past. This will help me in the future because I can learn about a specific practice and from there have more insight to understand the resources used and wastes produced to identify any inefficiencies in order to improve the overall impact. Working onsite at HCMC has helped provide real examples for me to learn from. I have been able to see actual practices and work to find where there are opportunities to save resources and improve process efficiency.

What has been your most exciting achievement as an intern working with HCMC and MnTAP?

Touring all the different facilities and processes at the hospital has allowed me to see many aspects of healthcare. I’ve gotten to see the parts that keep all of that going, the part that no one thinks of but everyone needs. Heating and cooling the building, supplying the water (booster pumps to get it everywhere in the building, temperature control), the interstitial space between floors that holds all of mechanical systems of the building are just a few of the essential systems needed to maintain the hospital.

If you could give advice or words of wisdom to future interns what would you say?

Be thorough and ask all the questions you can think of even if they don’t seem relevant at the time. Take advantage of being surrounded by professionals with experience in a field you may be entering in the next few years. The opportunity is more than just creating your project, it’s also exploring the field and really understanding if you like it or not and making contacts and connections that will help in the future.

If you are interested in learning more about the MnTAP intern projects that are going on this summer, register for the symposium being held on Tuesday, August 23. The symposium features presentations from 14 interns on their waste, energy and water pollution solutions.


Interested in becoming an intern with MnTAP? Apply for next summer’s program here!


Photos courtesy of MnTAP

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What do those “eco-friendly” labels mean, anyway? Tue, 16 Aug 2016 15:39:31 +0000 It seems like every type of consumer product from seafood to soap seems to carry an “eco-friendly” label these days. What do those labels tell us — and perhaps as important, what don’t they tell us?

IonE fellow Tim Smith, director of the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, a program of the Institute on the Environment, spoke recently with WTIP North Shore Community Radio about “green” labels, what they really mean, and how we can use them to make environmentally friendly choices.

IonE fellows are faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system and others who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries and are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

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Researchers pool talents to solve water waste Thu, 11 Aug 2016 19:08:07 +0000 A dip in a cool blue swimming pool can be just what the doctor ordered on these sweltering summer days. Lucky for us there are plenty of pools on the planet — some 9 million residential and 300,000 commercial pools in the U.S. alone. But what happens with all that water when we’re done with it?

Most pools are maintained with chemicals to keep harmful bacteria from growing in the water. These chemicals include cyanuric acid, which keeps chlorine from degrading under sunlight. Once it begins to degrade, more of the compound must be added. Eventually, concentrations of cyanuric acid reach a level that impairs chlorine disinfection and the pool water has to be drained and discarded. Fresh water is added and the process begins again.

Considering billions of gallons of water a year are dumped in the U.S. alone — along with the chemicals and energy that went in to clean and heat it — there’s a big water conservation opportunity, says Institute on the Environment fellow Lawrence Wackett, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

“In the not-too-distant future, water will be more precious than oil. We need to do a better job of reusing it,” Wackett says.

Wackett is leading a project aimed at developing a device to filter up to 100,000 gallons of chemical-laden pool water on site. It takes advantage of a common process called bioremediation that employs bacteria to consume toxins in water. What’s unique here is that the filter can be made to “snap into existing systems,” says Wackett.

Wackett says the device wouldn’t have been possible without support from institutions such as the University of Minnesota’s BioTechnology Institute and IonE that promote people with different ideas getting together.

“We have a good team with different strengths,” Wackett says. “My partner, Al, is a mechanical engineer. He was able to take the chemical process and design a body to house it and make it work.”

“Al” Alptekin Aksan, an associate professor in the College of Science and Engineering and the project co-lead, says they faced three big engineering challenges.

“The first was creating an isolated environment that can protect the toxin-degrading bacteria. Second, since few companies are willing to spend money to change their systems, the filter needs to be designed to function within an existing system. Third, companies that need to conduct bioremediation want it done quickly and cheaply, so the filter needs to be affordable and also scalable up to millions of gallons a day,” he says.

With guidance from the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization, which connects scientists to industry leaders who can help put their inventions into practice, Wackett and Aksan patented their bioremediation technology and licensed it to Minnepura Technologies, a company they co-founded in 2014. The company has developed and is currently testing and evaluating several prototypes, and expects a product to be available in 2017 through several global distribution partners.

“We have an opportunity to prevent up to 100 billion gallons of water a year from being wasted from swimming pools, not to mention the energy and chemicals,” says Paul Hansen, Minnepura’s CEO.

The company is also looking into other uses of the filtration device, which can be adapted to clean up a wide variety of chemicals.

“We’re exploring other solutions to clean water that would otherwise be unusable, including removing pesticides from agricultural runoff,” Wackett says. “The challenges there are to scale it up to the size of a field and figuring out how to capture the water for filtration.” Other uses include scrubbing hydrocarbons from water used in energy generation as well removing pharmaceuticals from drinking water, he says. They’re also working on biodegradation processes for chemicals such as aromatic hydrocarbons, developing innovative approaches in which oxygen is delivered by one bacterium that supports degradation by another bacterium.

“Everything comes down to water. Having clean water, not wasting water,” says Aksan. “This technology could help us save a lot of water, making it available for us to use again.”

Photo by DougBerry (iStock)

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The Institute on the Environment announces call for new Fellows and Affiliates Mon, 08 Aug 2016 15:20:07 +0000 The Institute on the Environment is excited to launch a new Fellows and Affiliates program as part of its commitment to bring together innovators from across the University and beyond to solve complex environmental challenges.

Faculty fellows have been essential members — the foundation — of the IonE community since it began and have helped establish IonE as one of the premier environmental think tanks in the country. This new program will expand on the current fellows program and offer openings for early-career faculty, visiting scholars and others.

Under the new program, individuals may formally affiliate with IonE in one of four ways:

  • IonE Fellows: foundational members of IonE, composed of senior faculty and others of similar rank with a track record of transformative and interdisciplinary environmental work
  • IonE Associates: early-career researchers who are developing skills in interdisciplinary and engaged scholarship
  • IonE Visiting Scholars: professionals in residence at IonE
  • IonE Educators: academic leaders seeking to advance sustainability education inside and outside the University.

Benefits of affiliation include eligibility for IonE grants and matching research support, access to services such as IonE’s communications support, and the use of IonE facilities for research and meetings. In return, affiliates are expected to contribute to the IonE community through participation in events and other collaborative and interdisciplinary activities.

“Fellows have been the lifeblood of the Institute, and we are excited to expand the program and welcome new members to the IonE community,” said Jessica Hellmann, IonE director. “IonE is helping to create a more interdisciplinary and externally engaged University by bringing scholars together and giving transformative researchers and teachers the recognition and opportunity they deserve.”

In addition to the creation of new categories, the new program increases focus on education and building the interdisciplinary capacity of the broader University community. IonE will also begin hosting an annual meeting for fellows, affiliates, friends of the Institute, partners and others in 2017.

The application/nomination deadline is September 15, 2016. Please share this announcement with fellow environmental innovators across the University of Minnesota — and outside the U — who might be interested in a formal affiliation with IonE.

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Connect with Boreas at the Fall Kick-off! Thu, 04 Aug 2016 15:00:58 +0000 At Boreas we are looking for graduate and professional students (and post-docs!) who are interested in developing as the leaders and change agents society needs to make progress on complex challenges like sustainability. Is that you? If so, get involved with Boreas.

Join us for the Fall Kick-off to learn more about the leadership development opportunities offered by Boreas.

Boreas Fall Kick-off
Thursday, September 22; 4:30 – 6 p.m.
Institute on the Environment Commons, Learning and Environmental Science Building, Room R350
1954 Buford Ave, Saint Paul Campus
Food and beverages served

As a sneak preview on what you’ll experience ­– at Boreas you’ll find a community of students from across disciplines who connect around their commitment to making an impact in the world. Feedback from previous students highlight this community as one of the most-valued parts of programming. Learn more here about how we build the Boreas community.

Developing your leadership also takes building skills. Boreas offers a series of skills workshops in key leadership areas. Check out the fall schedule here. A short application is required to get involved with workshops.

Now that you’re excited about Boreas, make plans to attend the Fall Kick-off to learn more. The Boreas Student Advisory Team is working on putting together a fun, informative event.

Join us September 22!

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The Boreas fall workshop schedule is here! Wed, 03 Aug 2016 15:21:21 +0000 Are you a graduate or professional student who wants to create change or make impact? Are you looking for ways to develop your skills as a professional and change maker? Are you looking for fellow students who are interested in similar things? Yes?

Check out the Boreas workshops! Our fall schedule is available now (see below).

Boreas is a leadership development program for graduate and professional students and post-docs from any discipline at the UMN who are interested in developing the skills, perspectives, and relationships to grow as leaders, professionals, and change agents. The program is offered the UMN Institute on the Environment.

At Boreas workshops you will be introduced to leadership concepts and skills, get the chance to practice them, and make a plan for applying them in your work and life. All of this great stuff happens in the context of an interdisciplinary group of engaged students. It’s useful and fun!

Boreas offers a series of workshops in four key areas – communications and media, integrative leadership, public skills, and systems thinking and tools. Learn more details about workshops here.

Learn more about workshops overall, check out our fall schedule below, and sign up by filling out a (short!) application.

Applications for fall Boreas workshops are due October 10.


Boreas Fall 2016 Workshops

Communications Workshops
In My Opinion
Wednesday, 11/16, 2 – 4:30 p.m.
It’s easier than ever to enter the public conversation through a variety of forums such as Facebook, tweets and tirades at your local bar. Still, a well-crafted opinion piece holds sway. If you have the skills, discipline, rigor and leadership to put your ideas out into this more formal public conversation, you can share your viewpoint with thousands or even millions of influential people. This workshop will introduce you to the art of the op-ed, get you started on your very own op-ed and offer ideas on where you can pitch your finished piece. We bring in experts, including editors from major Twin Cities media, to help.

Building Better Presentations
Thursday, 11/17, 2:00 – 4:30 p.m.
In case you haven’t heard, IonE has a pretty famous presentation expert who’s been helping to raise the quality of presentations at the University for years. Now you, too, can benefit from the insight and coaching of IonE communications director Todd Reubold. Learn presentation design and delivery best practices. Explore presenting to scientific vs. general audiences. Improve one of your own presentations. You’ll have to deliver presentations in graduate school and beyond, no question. If you get good at it, you will earn the eternal gratitude of your audiences. Oh, and you’ll be a more respected leader.

Telling Your Story
Wednesday, 12/7, 1:30 – 4:00 p.m.
Storytelling is an important leadership skill if you’re interested in science, policy and having an impact. This workshop will help you understand others’ stories and get better at telling your own. You’ll be able to answer the questions: Why do you do what you do? Why does your work matter? You’ll even gain a few ideas about how you can practice telling your story and so grow your leadership.

Public Skills Workshops
Developing Intercultural Competence
Tuesday, 10/18, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
Do you want to be more effective at navigating cultural differences at home or abroad? This workshop is designed to give you an overview on strategies not only to successfully overcome sticky cultural barriers and misunderstandings, but to understand and maximize the benefits of working across cultures. Participants will engage in activities to enhance their self-knowledge through the application of real-life scenarios.

Negotiating Basics
Thursday, 10/27, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
We don’t always agree, especially on really important matters. But we still need to make decisions and figure out how to move forward collectively. Strong negotiation skills will help you facilitate decision-making and make you a better leader. This workshop introduces participants to basic principles of negotiation and provides the opportunity for practice. Margaret Kelliher, former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, teaches this workshop. She’s negotiated state budget deals and taught negotiation at the Humphrey School. Now she’s bringing her unique perspective to Boreas.

Meetings that Matter
Tuesday, 11/1, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
You’ve almost certainly sat through a bad meeting. But have you ever been part of a meeting that feels transformational? Or at least productive? Done right, meetings facilitate great work. And you can learn to better facilitate meetings that matter. In this workshop, you will learn and practice a strategy to become a master of meetings. Try out some meeting games (yes, games at meetings!). Get ready to harness the contributions of colleagues and collaborators. Earn gratitude for not wasting time with bad meetings.

Systems Thinking and Tools
Friday and Saturday, 12/2 and 12/3, 9 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Participation on both days is required for this workshop.

The complexity of the social, biological, and physical systems often defies human intuition. Few people are prepared to work through the complexities within a discipline, much less problems that transcend disciplines. Systems thinking is a set of approaches used to describe and simulate the interactions among components of complex systems. Systems thinking can provide insights into the functioning of systems and contribute to solutions for today’s difficult challenges.

Integrative Leadership
Fridays, 10/21 and 10/28, 9 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Participation on both days is required for this workshop.

Solving environmental challenges requires the best efforts of teams of people with diverse skills and perspectives. The Boreas integrative leadership workshop empowers participants with integrative leadership skills for making meaningful progress on tough problems.

This experience is not for spectators! Participants learn about leadership practices and then practice and apply them in an experiential, learning lab format. Participants sharpen their abilities to address common challenges in leading diverse groups working on wicked environmental problems, practice conflict management and polarity mapping tools for engaging in thorny environmental dilemmas, learn from examples of successful integrative leadership, and build networks among participants with differing perspectives and skills.


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Water camps: tracing water’s journey through our lives Tue, 02 Aug 2016 21:57:15 +0000 Turn on your sink, take a shower, sip from a drinking fountain — water is a luxury that many take for granted. Where does water come from? And where does it go after it swirls down the drain? To answer these questions, 55 elementary- and middle-school-age children traced the path of water through their lives in two Mississippi River Water Journey Camps held at the Institute on the Environment in July with support from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Campers came to realize water’s journey to our homes and schools is more than meets the eye.

Children Use an Interactive Map

Photo courtesy of Jonee Brigham and Water Journey campers.

“We are interdependent with the systems around us. But because much of our water infrastructure is hidden, its hard to see those connections,” said IonE fellow Jonee Brigham, who created the camps to help children engage with water infrastructure and understand the connection between water, people and the environment.

Each week’s activities began at a specific “flow node” — an iconic starting point of water’s journey. The flow node for week one, Rain Week, was a storm drain on the corner outside the IonE building that served as base camp. The following week, Drink Week, campers used the building’s drinking fountain to anchor their journey.

Rain Week comprised a four-day expedition that followed a drop of rain from the storm drain to the Mississippi River. Brigham and her team helped campers trace the path of rain by following the location of manhole covers that lead to the Sarita Wetland, and then traveled beyond to the Mississippi River. At Sarita Wetland, campers planted native plants to promote water quality. All along the way, campers took water samples and pictures to further explore and document their own story of the journey of rain.

Sarita Storage Drain Map

Photo courtesy of Jonee Brigham and Water Journey campers.

Campers not only used existing maps but also created their own to help tell their stories. This activity can “help kids see the relationship between the places they visit and understand how water is connected across different places,” Brigham said.

Rebecca Barney, a graduate student studying geographic information systems at the University of Minnesota, guided campers through the map-making process.

“It’s a powerful tool that can promote storytelling in a reflective, active and involving way,” Barney said. “Engaging the campers with these artistic maps allowed them to creatively develop the story of water with their own vision.”

Sarita Wetland Watercolor Map

Photo courtesy of Jonee Brigham and Water Journey campers.

Drink Week focused on drinking water. Campers followed the path water takes to our faucets (symbolized by the drinking fountain) beginning and ending at the Mississippi River. On the way, they visited the St. Paul water treatment plant and the St. Paul campus water tower, where Cathy Abene, a civil engineer with UMN’s Facilities Management, led the campers inside the water tower and explained why they’re placed on high ground (to create pressure to ease water delivery). Abene also explained the jobs of various pressure gauges and pipeline infrastructure needed to successfully distribute water.

After following the water to IonE’s water meter and finally to the drinking fountain, campers traveled downstream where Abene and her crew opened up a sanitary sewer manhole that takes waste water (including toilet flush) away from the building. The next day, campers stopped at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant and ended their journey at the Mississippi River, where they cruised on a riverboat to find the place where the wastewater treatment plant returns the water to the river.

At the end of each week, campers showcased their stories to family and friends with maps, artwork and pictures. The connection between water, its pathways and its relation to the environment were essential takeaways for campers over the two weeks of water adventures.

“I was learning things I didn’t know before,” one camper said.

“Creating a sense of relationship for kids between their own lives and their water sources was my favorite part of the camp,” Brigham said. “One of the biggest rewards was the sense of wonder and curiosity from the campers about water infrastructure. They now have a better understanding of how everyday uses of water are connected to the Mississippi River.”

Giving the campers a chance to practice their stewardship skills was also important. “They realized they can contribute to water health. They took great pride and pleasure in putting in native plants at Sarita Wetland to help the water as well as the frogs, butterflies and grasshoppers that they met,” said Brigham. “If it were up to me, everyone would experience this journey of water and explore how interconnected we are.”

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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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