HomeEducationSustainability EducationRecap of 2024 Sustainability Symposium

Recap of 2024 Sustainability Symposium

Written by Joyce Wong

The Institute on the Environment partnered with the UMN Students For Climate Justice to host the annual Sustainability Symposium on April 12th, 2024. 

This year’s theme centered on Equity in Urban Design and connected students across multiple U of MN campuses to explore this topic. Through a range of projects, including lightning talks, posters, and creative works, presenters examined various ideas. All topics were multidisciplinary and examined sectors through a lens of justice. Students went above and beyond to provide comprehensive analysis and solutions for some of the most pressing challenges, including waste management, supply chains, clean energy, and green spaces.

With the highest turnout rate ever seen, it is evident that UMN undergraduate, graduate, and professional students are driven to make an impact in the environmental field. We would like to thank every presenter and attendee that carved time out to celebrate the innovative research and development toward a more just, sustainable future. To learn more about each presentation, please see the Symposium Booklet.

We would like to congratulate the following Symposium winners for their incredible contributions and presentations.

Lightning Talk Awardees

Louis Siegel

UMN Crookston

Solar Energy Install Investigation

The University of Minnesota Crookston Campus has been investigating a solar array installation as part of our commitment to campus carbon neutrality by 2050. The campus also has a vested interest in a solar project due to potential reduced costs for energy. For this project, install rebates and tax credits were investigated to mitigate costs. Two funding sources were identified, an install rebate offered by Otter Tail Energy, and a tax credit offered by the Inflation Reduction Act. Otter Tail Energy offers a rebate that can cover up to 50 percent of install costs ($1,500 per kilowatt install, up to the maximum size of 40 kilowatts). The IRA offers tax credits of 30 to 50 percent of install costs. Using this information, two scenarios were created, one using the identified funding to pay for other needs on campus, and the other using the funding to pay off an initial internal loan for the installation. A conservative estimate of 70% funding was used. In total, it was estimated that UMC could see energy savings of $65,938.48 and $96,453.70 in scenarios one and two, over 25 years.

This information has shown it is viable for organizations such as UMC to undertake solar installs, however, the potential cost and method of integrating solar into existing campus infrastructure still needs to be investigated.

Niko Deshpande and Sarah Zins


Urban Mining via Electronic Waste Recycling

“In 2023, Minnesota produced more than 266 million pounds of electronic waste (e-waste), composed of 68 elements with a total material value of $3.2 billion. Less than 25% of this waste is properly recycled, leaving the remainder to be disposed of in landfills or incinerated. When discarded in such a manner, the metals within electronic waste permeate the air, seep into water sources, and infiltrate the soil, constituting 70% of the heavy metal content found within landfills. Urban mining looks at e-waste as a stock for reclaiming the resources contained in electronics. This process not only recovers valuable metals that would otherwise be discarded but also prevents pollution, both by reducing improper disposal and by reducing the need for traditional mining. Through this project, we are exploring avenues that have the potential to increase the recycling rate of electronic waste and uncover opportunities to improve electronics’ circularity. Our research seeks to determine the main barriers to circularity in the electronics industry, as well as find the most impactful support, incentives, or technologies to further this goal. We also want to understand the impact that urban mining would have on traditional mining and the environment as a whole. This research is being conducted through interviews with key stakeholders as well as through systems analysis. (Note: this is part of a class project for ME8243.)”

Karina Herra-Cavasos, Katie Nesheim, Mya Shultz, Andrea Ray, Rebecca Stavek


Nurturing Sustainability in the City of Robbinsdale 

“Community initiatives are among the main drivers of change to combat climate change in the US. The city of Robbinsdale, Minnesota is hoping to be a part of this movement with the development and implementation of a climate action plan within the next few years. Spearheaded by Kayla Kirtz, the city’s Sustainability Coordinator, this plan will aid Robbinsdale in its efforts to reduce the harmful effects of climate change and improve residential life.

Like many other cities, resources allocated to this type of project are severely limited in terms of capacity. For this reason, our group was commissioned to aid Kayla by creating a framework for the climate action plan as part of our course PA4790: Topics in Science, Technology, & Environmental Policy at the UMN. This framework will help to highlight key areas of improvement, outline specific target goals, recommend benchmarking strategies, and engage the community to streamline execution.

Our main method of research thus far in the project has been looking into other cities with similar demographics and conducting interviews on how they’ve instituted climate action plans. These include the cities of St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, and Crystal. This has been helpful to identify potentially successful items Robbinsdale can include in their plan, how to prioritize these items, and how to get the community involved.”

Luiza de Almeida Lucena


Sustainable Sourcing: Investigating Corporate Preferences and Market Dynamics for Non-Timber Forest Products

“In recent decades, multi-stakeholders have increasingly advocated for sustainability practices across global value chains as a result of the negative social and environmental externalities caused by corporations, prompting companies to invest in sustainable supply chains and source sustainable products. The commercialization of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) serves as an important market-based conservation strategy for forest communities to improve livelihoods, conserve forests, and alleviate poverty. However, factors affecting their market integration remain poorly understood, alongside a lack of comprehensive investigation into organizations’ evaluation criteria and preferences for sustainable product sourcing.

This study addresses these issues by investigating corporate preferences in the beverage, cosmetic, and food industries, aiming to inform forest producers and improve NTFP commercialization. We utilized a mixed-method approach to interview and survey 80 U.S. companies from October 2022 to April 2023, focusing on sustainable product attributes, supply chain practices, and company characteristics. Factor analysis identified key drivers for sustainable adoption, while regression analysis explored correlations of preferences with business size, supply chain segment, and model.

Understanding crucial aspects influencing sustainable product sourcing has the potential to inform forest communities to adopt sustainable practices and optimize NTFP commercialization, improve livelihood and forest conservation, and enhance sustainability practices across sectors.”

Kristine Loh


Solar-Powered Greenhouses for the Production of Lettuce and Clean Energy in the United States

“With the growing global population and increasing climate change stressors, there is a rising need for both renewable energy generation and increased food production to sustain larger communities. Greenhouse cultivation provides one solution, as the closed environment protects crops from adverse environmental conditions. However, greenhouses consume significant amounts of energy for heating, especially in colder climates, leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions from traditional heating methods. To simultaneously address the global challenges of sustainable food production and renewable energy, agrivoltaic systems combine agriculture and photovoltaics in one plot of land. Luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) can provide additional design flexibility to agrivoltaic systems without hindering light transmission for plant growth. LSCs are composed of a luminescent material embedded in a polymer matrix that concentrates light onto an adjacent solar cell. Using LSCs as agrivoltaic greenhouse roofs presents a promising opportunity to provide clean energy without significantly compromising crop yield; however, the LSC design considerations that balance light transmission and electricity generation need to be better understood. In this talk, I will present a modeling framework to evaluate the trade-off between light used for energy generation and crop growth in LSC greenhouses in four U.S. locations. We evaluate LSC greenhouses from multiple angles, including crop yield, energy generation, and economic value. We find that LSC greenhouses can be more profitable than conventional glass greenhouses in warm climates while relying entirely on solar energy. Our work points to the viability of LSC greenhouses for agrivoltaic systems and the need for further LSC research. Written in collaboration with Kristine Q. Loh, Kale Harbick, Nathan J. Eylands, Uwe R. Kortshagen, and Vivian E. Ferry.”

Jude Humphrey

UMN Morris

Community Resilience in Morris

“Minnesotans naturally face extreme and variable weather. Now, we must also anticipate and adapt to climate change. We can already see the effect of climate change on Minnesota’s weather: on average we are experiencing warmer and wetter weather combined with more damaging rains. In 2022, the Morris Model came together to create a community resilience plan. This was done with the community resilience building process, which examines how a community is vulnerable to both current and future weather conditions and what that community can do to better adapt. Climate adaptation differs from climate mitigation in that it acknowledges the changes we’ve set in motion and then asks how best we can prepare for them. The community resilience building process is a form of climate adaptation planning that involves bringing in cross-sector community partners and varying levels of government. After bringing everyone together, participants are asked to identify their community’s vulnerabilities and some possible actions to strengthen the place that they live and work in. “Resilient communities” is the third goal of Minnesota’s Climate Action Framework. Within that goal is the hope that by 2030, all Minnesotans will live in communities that have made climate action plans, making Morris ahead of the trend. In my presentation, I will briefly introduce the concept and steps of community resilience building. It is also important to address that now Morris has undergone this process, what are our next steps?”

Amalia Galvan

UMN Morris

Wild Rice

Vivi Tabor

UMN Duluth

Beavers: The Secret Climate MVPs

“When discussing Urban Design, you cannot leave out the original engineers, beavers. These cute critters are often left out of conversations about important animals in our ecosystem. Many focus on the number of pollinators or predators in our environment but fail to bring up how beavers play a key ecological role in our changing climate. Their profound effect on groundwater storage is what makes them so key. Not only does this allow them to prevent droughts and forest fires, but their dams also create hot spots for biodiversity and protect native species. Frequently, people will mistake beavers for pests. Some even believe they are harmful to fish due to a common misconception that stems from people attempting to protect an invasive species. Both of these reasons have caused tons of beavers to be killed or their dams to be removed. This presentation is to bring light to these environmental superheroes and to educate Minnesotans on the climate MVPs that live right in their backyards.”

Hannah Harrold

UMN Duluth

Sustainability and the Archives

“My action project has been to organize the archives of the Sustainability Office at UMD and helping them understand projects and initiatives of the past while also aiding them in finding any documents needed for research. This project began as a way of bringing light to the history of sustainable efforts of the past that have been filed away and forgotten, while also digitizing the works. With this, the hope is that not only can the Sustainability Office learn something about past initiatives and how these still hold importance and effect today, but also show the farming community of Duluth the history of the land they are surrounded by. This project will show other Sustainability organizations the importance of going back into their archives and learning from the history presented there when coming up with initiatives they can begin now, as well as looking back to the past for inspiration for the present. I specifically want to showcase how to develop a project similar to this one on their college campus and how important archival work is to organize and digitize for our sustainable future. “

Remi Foust

UMN Duluth

Sustainability in Student Government

“Each University of Minnesota Campus has a student government with different positions, styles, and events that maintain their focus for the academic year. At UMD, a large focus is on sustainability and involving students on campus with those focuses. The Sustainability Director specifically addresses this through planning Earth Week and the Sustainability Fair, as well as coordinating and supporting Sustainability student leadership. Other Student Government events support sustainability in various ways and listen to student feedback regarding what can be done on campus regarding social, economic, and environmental factors. Additionally, the sustainability work completed through the Student Government Association is due to a direct connection between students and the Office of Sustainability, a connection vital to incorporating sustainability and student life. This is a necessity to support the student body and further sustainable action on campus. The presentation will include how, why, and what students can do when working with shared governance and how sustainability is crucial to these inner workings.”

Creative Work Awardees

William Arent, Henry Parks, Ariana Golemis, Xiaoning Liu


Theodore Wirth Park Storytelling: Examining Social and Ecological Perspectives of the Twin Cities’ Largest Green Space

“Theodore Wirth Park in Golden Valley, MN is one of the largest green spaces in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Despite its size and proximity to racially diverse neighborhoods of North Minneapolis, it suffers from a relatively homogenous user base of white, upper-middle-class residents from South Minneapolis and Golden Valley. The Loppet Foundation, the administrative body responsible for the park, has embarked on the Stories Project in an attempt to connect visitors to the value of the park and its oak savannas through uplifting diverse voices and perspectives. Through the production of two comprehensive ArcGIS StoryMaps, we provide a foundation for the Loppet Stories Project, examining the dynamics of racial inequity within and surrounding Theodore Wirth Park, in addition to exploring the ways that the unique oak savannah ecosystems found within provide us both environmental and cultural value. Through our StoryMaps, we aim to illuminate the realities of racial injustice present in Minneapolis Parks as well as provide an understanding of the cultural and ecological relationships between people and oak savannas.”

Rachel Clarke and Karaline Green

UMN Duluth

Investigating E-waste at UMD: Lessons in Sustainable Systems Thinking

“Technology is increasingly integrated into our lives and work, but are we thinking critically and ecologically about where these products come from and where they will go when we are done with them, and the impact they have on the health of people and the planet? E-waste is one of the most rapidly growing waste streams globally, but many of us do not confidently know how to responsibly and legally dispose of our electronic products when they are no longer usable. Our investigative research applies a sustainable systems thinking lens to the issue of e-waste at UMD, considering the purchasing, use/reuse, and disposal of institutionally-owned electronic goods on campus, the attitudes and beliefs that inform those decisions and behaviors, and leverage points where the system can be improved for sustainability. Our research into responsible institutional stewardship of electronic products revealed strengths, obstacles, and opportunities for innovative initiatives on-campus and at the U of M system level. We hope to foster dialogue across campuses to raise awareness of this growing issue, share challenges and solutions, and create positive change towards more sustainable behaviors.”

Poster Awardees

Braden Letourneau

UMN Crookston

Comparing Two-Step Weaning Methods to Traditional Weaning Methods in Beef Cattle

Stress during the weaning process of cattle production can cause loss for the animal and the producer (Cole, 2023). There are different weaning methods to choose from to reduce this stress (O’Loughlin, 2014). Plasma cortisol levels is one significant sign of stress in cattle. Cortisol can be measured and understood to quantify the amount of stress present in an animal at different times (Proverbio, 2013). This study looks at a two-step weaning process to establish the benefits to the animals and the producers. According to Ohio State University there are many indicators that an animal may be stressed including movement and vocalization (Alverado, 2023). This study establishes a rubric grading system for each of these indicators and compares both weaning methods. There are 26 cow calf pairs that are used in this model split into a control and tested group. The tested group utilized nose flaps on the nasal septum to reduce the nursing prior to physical separation. Nose flaps were in for seven days and resulted in quieter weaning with less movement. When looking at average daily gain within these time frames there is a significant decrease in the amount of gain in the control calves during the stressful weaning process.

Seohyun Lee, Shelby Engels

UMN Crookston

Aerobic Biodegradation of various light activated “3D” polymer resins and developing a temperature-controlled chamber

Ultraviolet light-activated polymers used in Stereolithography (SLA) additive manufacturing are a growing tool in both industrial and domestic production of plastic components. Unlike traditional Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) these polymers are often composed of various Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) that have adverse environmental and health effects.  To curb these effects, popular product manufacturers have produced “plant-based”, or “bio-based” advertised products. These products’ effects are poorly understood and leave many questions regarding their long-term sustainability. This project specifically explores the fate of these alternative products in a commercial compost facility.  Composting utilizes aerobic microorganisms to break down organic material into its mineral components.  Composting reduces the volume of the original organic matter by converting it into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water.  This project is twofold 1) the design and testing of a commercial composting incubation chamber and 2) the impact of commercial composting conditions on the breakdown of these polymers. This research seeks to understand the fate of these compounds in a commercial composting facility by measuring the loss of mass from the original polymer and the evolution of CO2 from the composting chamber over time. 

Zoe Hoaglund

UMN Morris

Morris Water Treatment Plan

“I will be presenting on the new waste water treatment plant. The presentation will focus on what the environment was like with the old water treatment plant. With the old plant homes in Morris used in-home ion exchange which discharged lots of chloride into the Pomme de Terre river in town. This led to an excess of chloride in the river which was harming aquatic life as well as the surrounding ecosystems. It will also focus on the new changes from the water treatment plant such as the use of lime and soda ash to soften the water at the plant, rendering the in home ion exchange unneeded. It will also touch on the mechanics of the plant, for example the steps it takes to run. The mechanics will cover extraction from the aquifer to distribution, with a light background in basic water chemistry and quality terms.”

Martha Torstenson, Chris Wogan, Divya Kumawat, Jasmine Noory, Katherine Copp, Libby Kula, Molly Tilsen, Rachael Kaspar, Zita Sárközi, Thanzeel Nazer

UMN Twin Cities

Ecosystem and Planetary Health Cohort Model and Process

“We have led an interdisciplinary graduate student cohort in an exploration of ecosystem and planetary health. We designed a learning process that wove together the expertise and interests of each cohort member to co-create an understanding of ecosystem and planetary considerations related to water. Our learning process followed the same structure each week. Before each meeting, the leaders of the meeting brought in some resources that would contribute to our learning. We began each meeting by connecting with one another by reflecting on how we were doing in terms of enjoyment, satisfaction, purpose, and connection. We would then discuss and document the resources that had been brought in, how they connect to previous meetings, and what key themes had been brought up. We would end the meeting by identifying curiosities that were brought up. These curiosities would then be used to select resources to bring in for the next meeting. This process led to the development of a model that illustrates our co-created understanding of ecosystem and planetary health considerations related to water. With water as our focal point, we have examined it through various lenses, encompassing scales, socioeconomic impacts, and the engagement of diverse stakeholders, including industries and local communities. Each participant’s distinctive perspective, research, and interests have significantly enriched our collective understanding, shedding light on various approaches to managing water and its diverse effects on human life.”

Katerina Trachtova

UMN Twin Cities

Progress in Uncovering the Role of Ferredoxin Midpoint Reduction Potential and Structural Properties in Electron Transfer to Nitrogenase

“A transition to clean energy requires a diverse and effective set of investable options. One that is gaining traction is the use of hydrogen gas for energy, which holds three times the power of gasoline by weight. Even with higher energy density, energy-intensive machinery in today’s hydrogen production prevents a net positive climate impact. Biological production of hydrogen by photofermentative bacteria is an option for a renewable source of fuel, as it can hit net zero carbon emissions due to it requiring only a carbon and light source to produce hydrogen.  Optimizing the process is a crucial step to bring renewably sourced biohydrogen to market.  Rhodopseudomonas palustris, a purple non sulfur bacterium found in freshwater sediments, is a model system to understand how we can maximize hydrogen production in bacteria due to its ability to produce hydrogen via the nitrogenase enzyme. This project aims to uncover the role of two properties of an implicated protein in the pathway called ferredoxin. Diverse ferredoxins have been genetically inserted into R. palustris to observe metabolic and hydrogen production differences. This poster will share progress in the research and the roadblocks of working with bacteria chassis that informs their use as sustainable energy alternatives.”

Adam Brodsky, Daniel Rudolph


Green Labs – Office of Sustainability (Clean Energy Leaders Project)

“In response to the climate crisis and for holistic sustainable stewardship, the Clean Energy Leaders program, under the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ Institute on the Environment will be utilizing a mix of interdisciplinary undergraduate backgrounds to support and improve the Office of Sustainability’s Green Labs program on campus. Our goal is to promote sustainable / conservation laboratory practices as the future of research and innovation play crucial roles in shaping the University of Minnesota. This will be accomplished through a comprehensive Green Labs template guide that will outline the most applicable conservation practices our laboratories can establish.”

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