HomeGrantsA running start: The newest round of Mini Grant recipients

A running start: The newest round of Mini Grant recipients

We may call them Mini Grants, but their impact is anything but tiny.

Over the past eight years, the Institute on the Environment has awarded nearly $650,000 to 240 sustainability-focused projects across all five U of M campuses. We welcome applications for these gifts of up to $3,000 twice each year, and they often help to give a project its running start. Connections and support from the IonE community provide momentum on the way to the finish line.

Teams of faculty, postdocs, undergraduates, graduates, and community partners form this spring’s crop, and they plan to make an impact in Minnesota and beyond. From hidden histories to Haitian water systems, zero waste events to queer science initiatives, we’re proud to announce the spring 2019 Mini Grant recipients:

Translating Across Boundaries: A Convening of Academics and Advocates on Climate Change

Translating Across Boundaries: A Convening of Academics and Advocates on Climate Change will take place on August 1-2, 2019, in Minneapolis, MN, and will be a first-of-its-kind convening to address a critical question: How do we engage the public to do what the science tells us is needed? The RE-AMP Network and The Energy Transition Lab (ETL), two experts in collaboration, will bring together ~50 leaders from their respective networks of climate change nonprofits and academic researchers in the Upper Midwest for a day and a half of deep partnership building. Using a systems-thinking approach to connect the facts to the needs of local communities, leaders will be equipped to think bigger and bolder. PI: Barb Jacobs, Energy Transition Lab. Project Members: Ellen Anderson (IonE Fellow, ETL), Aaron Hanson (ETL), Sean Carroll (ReAmp), Jodi Slick (Ecolibrium3), Brian Smith (Wayne State University).

The Green Neighbor Challenge

Utility Green Pricing Programs (GPPs) give residential and commercial energy consumers the power to purchase renewable electricity directly through their utility. Over the last decade, they have become both widespread and affordable; however, subscription rates remain abysmal.The Green Neighbor Challenge is a social media campaign and a web-based tool designed to help consumers quickly identify, understand, and sign up for their utility’s GPP, and then challenge friends and family to choose a cleaner future too. It is being built upon the first-ever national database of GPPs, and promises abundant benefits for communities and the planet. PI: Aaron Hanson, Energy Transition Lab. Project Members: Andrew Butts (Humphrey School), Science for the People-Twin Cities, Megan Voorhees (Acara), Elliott Rezny.

Life Sciences Postdoc Science Communication and Career Development Workshop

Our current training climate for postdocs in life sciences stresses development through research output and performance, but does not provide adequate training for the transition to academic and non-academic careers. As part of the solution, the postdoctoral committees from CBS and CFANS have teamed up with staff at the Itasca Biological Station to create a two day career development retreat in September for all postdocs at UMN Twin Cities in life-science related fields. At this retreat, postdocs will engage in workshops on topics including developing an online profile/brand, the process of science commercialization, science communication involving social media, effective CV writing, and preparing for interviews. This professional development retreat will provide our most passionate postdocs with the ancillary skills needed for a successful career beyond their time at UMN. PI: Carrie M. Wilmot, CBS. Project Members: Lesley Knoll (CBS), Mary Buschette (CFANS).

Designing Sustainability Metrics for Meaning and Impact

The Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) support approximately 100 community-driven sustainability projects across Greater Minnesota each year. Community partners report project outcomes in a statewide evaluation database, yet understanding the collective impact of these projects is complex. To address this challenge, RSDP and IonE staff are working in partnership to apply a values hierarchy framework that illustrates how the identification of metrics can support RSDP’s sustainability values and bedrock principles.This mini grant will be used to workshop and share the value hierarchy framework and newly identified RSDP sustainability metrics with RSDP board members, group members, community partners and University colleagues through a Google site and statewide event. PI: Caryn Mohr, RSDP. Project Members: Linda Kingery (RSDP), Eric Lonsdorf (Natural Capital Project), Ellen Wolter (Minnesota Compass).

Blooming Gardens for Better Health

Small-scale green spaces are increasingly recognized as important to the health of a community, but they are under-researched in all areas, including sustainability. Working with a non-profit organization, this project will address the perceived environmental and health-related impacts of ‘green alleys,’ those intentionally designed for water remediation through increased vegetation, among diverse residents. Understanding and documenting green alley benefits will add to the literature base and arguments for greening small urban spaces. Facilitated focus groups with green alley residents will assess the perceived benefits and identify opportunities for design improvement. Results will be used to enhance support for small-scale green interventions in urban areas to improve both sustainable urban land use and human health outcomes. PI: Ingrid Schneider, CFANS. Project Members: Ella Weber (CFANS), Laura Scholl (Metro Blooms), Michael Martin (Iowa State University).

Fostering a collaboration to develop a tool that measures the health of fish exposed to environmental contaminants in Minnesota

Despite the undeniable importance of water to human, animal, and environmental health, freshwater ecosystems are threatened by everyday human activities through the use of chemicals in industrial and household products. Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) include a wide variety of chemicals used by humans, such as pharmaceuticals. CECs have been identified throughout the Great Lakes Basin and may have a variety of adverse impacts on aquatic life. This project evaluates the health of wild fish exposed to CECs in northeastern Minnesota. A one-week workshop will be held to foster the development of a tool that can be used to evaluate the health of wild fish exposed to environmental contaminants. This workshop will allow the project’s current team of academic, tribal, and state agencies to partner with a trained Veterinary Anatomic Pathologist who has experience in biomarkers of fish health. PI: Alex Primus, College of Veterinary Medicine. Project Members: Jessica Deere (College of Veterinary Medicine), Joanna Borucinska (University of Hartford), Tiffany Wolf (IonE Associate, College of Veterinary Medicine), Dominic Travis (IonE Educator, College of Veterinary Medicine), Nicholas Phelps (CFANS), Joe Servadio (School of Public Health), Mark Ferrery (MPCA), Mark Jankowski (US EPA), Seth Moore (Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa), Yvette Chenaux Ibrahim (Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa).

Queer Science

Bruce Bagemihl stated that “[queering STEM and environmentalism] is to throw light on the biases and limitations of the human observer.” Diverse ideas require diverse individuals to challenge assumptions and perspectives. Queer Science is a first of its kind program to specifically provide outreach to queer youth interested in STEM fields to ensure that underrepresented minorities see a place for themselves in STEM fields. To promote queer representation in STEM, Queer Science began as an outreach organization for queer high school students. Through hands-on experiments and personal interactions, queer students can see possibility models in successful queer scientists and researchers. Moving forward, this project proposes events and programs spanning 24-months of unique opportunities. This includes four free day-long events, partnerships with other organizations’ events, and potential new programs such as educational hiking excursions. PI: Dr. Lee Penn, IonE Fellow, CSE. Project Members: Juliet Johnston (CSE), Ryan Daley (CSE), Evan Tyler (CSE), Morgan Esler (CSE), Grace Aysta (CLA), Phi Kalar, Kelly Wallin (CBS), Kirbie Dramdahl (CSE), Esh Venkatachalam, Rachel Tenney (CSE).

Informing current development through an analysis of hidden histories

Through an in depth case-study of local knowledge and erased histories in Nassau County, Florida, this project produces data that allows for a reconsideration of current and past development and planning practices while simultaneously leveraging university dollars in a way that resources black community and addresses the real world problems faced by the black legacy residents of Nassau County. Funding will support a data collection trip based on prior work with community members in the area. One dataset will focus on geolocating the ancestral burial grounds of the black community, and another will focus on the location, size, and purpose of water retention ponds. This work will provide a set of twofold benefits: it will disrupt existing power dynamics that are often harmful to communities of color through co-generation of original research with community, and it will resource community members using university funds. PI: Kate Derickson, IonE Associate, CLA. Project Members: Kaleigh Swift (Humphrey School), Glenda Simmons Jenkins (Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition), John Chapman (CFANS).

Solar Charkha and Solar Commons Learning Network: Building A Cross-Cultural Research Team to Study Low-Income Community Solar As Socio-Cultural Infrastructure In India and the US   

Solar energy is proving itself to be a tool of economic empowerment for low-income communities in both industrialized countries and rural villages far from electricity grids.  What diverse benefits can community solar ownership models bring to communities and how do communities, in turn, value solar belonging in their communities? The grant will provide seed funding to begin a cross-cultural community solar research project involving the University of Minnesota Duluth, the University of Calcutta, and the University of Arizona.  Two innovative, diverse community solar projects—Solar Charkha and Solar Commons—empowering low-income communities and engaging local art respectively in India and the US will be connected in a network of economic, agronomy, technology researchers, students, community activists and public artists in order to gage economic and social impact benefit, exchange best practices and discover how solar technology can be embedded in deeply significant traditions and meanings to enhance ecological ones. PI: Dr. Kathryn Milun, IonE Fellow, CLA. Project Members: Dr. Devaleena Das (CLA), Dr. Arijita Dutta (University of Calcutta), Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee (University of Calcutta), Dr. Ellen McMahon (University of Arizona).

Approaching Sustainability as a U of M SystemLeveraging System Thinking and Knowledge

The annual SELFSustain Conference gives students and staff from the University of Minnesota system a glimpse of University sustainability efforts. This project will allow facilities staff and students from system campuses to further explore this work by traveling to and learning about some of the most successful sustainability initiatives across the system. This will enhance cross-fertilization with facilities staff as well as student learning about sustainability practices across the system, and all will have the opportunity to “learn by doing.” This will result in impactful experiences that will lead to transformative changes within the students and within each of the U of M campuses, as those participating will travel back to their campuses and enact change.  PI: Katy Chapman, IonE Educator, U of M Crookston Sustainability. Project Members: Mary Hannemann (Sustainability Education), Shane Stennes (U of M Twin Cities Office of Sustainability), Mindy Granley (IonE Educator, U of M Duluth Office of Sustainability), Joanna Korpi (U of M Duluth Office of Sustainability), Troy Goodnough (Uof M Morris Office of Sustainability).

Campus-wide Zero Waste Event Awareness and Education

Events generate large amounts of landfill waste. The University of Minnesota -Twin Cities campus implementation of organics recycling and central collection throughout all buildings will be completed by 2020. To meet the goal of 50% of waste diverted through organics recycling, staff, faculty, and students must be educated on how to use organics recycling and be committed to zero waste initiatives. Waste Recovery Services, Institute on the Environment, and Heritage Catering have partnered to provide access to and support for zero-waste events across the Twin Cities campus. Zero waste education for building occupants and event planners is a starting point that will also build awareness and enthusiasm for other campus initiatives. PI: Kimberly Long, Institute on the Environment. Project Members: Courtney Peters (IonE), Allison Sawyer (Waste Recovery Services), Lizzy Logas-Lindstrom (Waste Recovery Services), Katy Chapman (IonE Educator, U of M Crookston Sustainability), Lauren Jansen (Heritage Catering), Haley Burns (M Dining).

Economic Sustainability of a Community Water System in Southern Haiti

The goal of Economic Sustainability of a Community Water System in Southern Haiti is to transition Tree of Hope Haiti’s (TOHH) existing water storage and filtration system into a self-sustaining, income-generating operation in the community of Grand-Goâve, Haiti. High costs for maintenance and replacement parts for the water system place a financial burden on TOHH and the lack of a sustainable source of income leaves the community at risk. In order to assess the possibilities for income generating activity, Michele Girard and Sarah Funkhouser will conduct quantitative and qualitative research, guided by the principles of Community Based Participatory Research. The data gathered will inform the team of the needs and capacities of the community and will provide a foundation to develop and implement a locally-driven project that will ensure the longevity of the water system, help alleviate financial stress for TOHH, and foster community ownership. PI: Angela Fertig, Humphrey School. Project Members: Michele Girard, Sarah Funkhouser (Humphrey School), Audrey Dorélien (Humphrey School), Angela Parayson (Tree of Hope Haiti).

Bat houses on the UMD campus

White-nose syndrome and industrial scale deployment of wind turbines have become threats to bat populations. Bats hibernating at the Soudan Mine have suffered a 90% decline over the last three years from White Nose Syndrome. This is a pilot project to test if bat houses will be used by bats on the UMD campus and at NRRI. Students will use acoustic detectors and emergence counts to measure bat presence in and near constructed bat houses, and the presence of bats may indicate that deploying bat houses on a larger scale could help populations recover. The social goal of this project is to increase public awareness about bats on the UMD campus and in Duluth. PI: Ron Moen, U of M Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute Project Members: David Herrera Santacruz (U of M Duluth Student Association, U of M Duluth Office of Sustainability), Shane Peterson (U of M Duluth Facilities Management), Mindy Granley (IonE Educator, U of M Duluth Office of Sustainability), Steve Berger (U of M Duluth/NRRI), June Breneman (U of M Duluth/NRRI).

“A Sense of Wonder” – The Life and Works of Rachel Carson Brought to Life

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and “patron saint of the environmental movement,” was a scientist and poet that has been credited with helping inspire the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and challenging the techno-optimism of the mid-20th century. In her two-act play “A Sense of Wonder,” award-winning actress Kaiulani Lee portrays Rachel Carson’s life experiences and philosophy in a moving call-to-arms. This one-woman play is a transdisciplinary exploration of what it means to be human, scientist, artist, and transitive being on this chemically-changing planet.  Ms. Lee has performed this play around the world for several decades to international acclaim with permission from the Rachel Carson estate. The performance will be followed by a student-moderated discussion with Ms. Lee on the relevance and applicability of Carson’s writings in an era of climate change and the role of artistic communication in advancing conservation science. Open to the public. PI: Dr. Tracey Deutsch, CLA. Project Members: Sharon Perrone (CFANS), Kaiulani Lee (George Mason University).

University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project

The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project (UMNSVP) is a student group whose goal is to create better engineers, business people, and leaders while innovating solar vehicle technology. UMNSVP students design, build, market, finance, and race cars that run on solar energy. The team builds a new solar car every two years and races each car in two solar car races: the American Solar Challenge and the World Solar Challenge, which takes place in Australia. PI: David Orser, ECE, CSE. Project Members: Erick Sipila, Alexander Vanden Bussche, Rickey Sipila, Ashley Law, Claire West, Ben Gallup, Farris Al-Humayani, Owen Hoffend, Grace Reimer, Kenneth McCumber, Ross Olson, Hari Gopalakrishnan.

Interdisciplinary workshops to develop a model of agroecological training for graduate students

Innovation in graduate education for agroecology and food systems is required to prepare students to address the grand challenges of sustainable land use amidst climate change, a growing population, and the devastating ecological and public health consequences of our current agricultural production practices. An interdisciplinary group of graduate students at UMN have been gathering for two years to develop a model of transdisciplinary agroecological graduate education. This project seeks to further develop and improve that model through a series of facilitated conversations with potential participants in the program, graduate students in food systems-related programs across the University. These conversations will result in a more robust model that can be implemented within the Applied Plant Sciences program and potentially other agroecology-related disciplines to provide a new type of training for graduate students. PI: Julie Grossman, IonE Fellow, CFANS. Project Members: Vivian Wauters (CFANS), Sharon Perrone (CFANS), Jennifer Nicklay (CFANS).


Grace Becker is the Communications Associate at the Institute on the Environment and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability studies, and Spanish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *