HomeGrantsAt the intersection of sustainability and society: Announcing a new crop of Mini Grants

At the intersection of sustainability and society: Announcing a new crop of Mini Grants

The Institute on the Environment’s community is its greatest asset. We can’t solve Earth’s greatest challenges without the array of perspectives, experience, and expertise that our diverse community brings to the table, and we’re passionate about doing what we can to make that group’s sustainability goals a reality.

Twice each year, we take the opportunity to spur innovative, collaborative environmental work by awarding our Mini Grants, gifts of up to $3,000, to interdisciplinary groups of faculty, staff, and students from across the University of Minnesota system. The outcome of last fall’s RFP, this batch of projects hail from the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Crookston, and pioneer new approaches to everything from augmented reality to food waste. It’s hard to imagine these projects could be any further reaching or any more inspiring.

“This cohort is definitely leading toward a future where ‘people and the environment prosper together,’” says Mini Grant program coordinator Jennifer Thissen. “From the Iron Range to the Twin Cities, Puerto Rico and beyond, these Mini Grants are working in spaces at the intersection of sustainability and the human requirements for ecosystem services, further exemplifying the fact that environmental concerns and human concerns are one.”

IonE is proud to announce the recipients of its latest round of Mini Grants.


Establishing a Sustainability Communication Framework for Animal Agriculture  (Twin Cities)

Sustainability is a term often used in conversations about animal agriculture, but it is often accompanied by confusion about its practical meaning. A half-day workshop will be held during the April 2019 Waste to Worth Conference to bring together multiple stakeholders (e.g. producers, retailers, supply chain representatives, NGO members) inside and outside of the animal agricultural industry to discuss terminology, language, and concepts around sustainability from diverse perspectives. Participants will leave the workshop with a greater understanding of sustainability terms and will be better equipped to have conversations about complex topics in sustainability across different stakeholder groups. PI: Natalie D. Hunt, Teaching Assistant Professor, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

Nueva Generación (New Generation) Sparks Sustainable Change (Twin Cities)

“Nueva Generación de Estudiantes en Accion,” or the New Generation of Students in Action, is a self-formed environmental student group in Buena Vista, Bolivia who in spite of socio-cultural, educational, and financial barriers are driven to be champions of environmentalism. With the collaboration of Etta Projects, a local non-profit organization, a 12-week trans-disciplinary program will be designed and facilitated with the goal of inspiring hundreds of other youth to be changemakers, and catalyzing the use of sustainable practices including recycling, composting, reforestation and gardening. Collaboration with UMN partners will translate these lessons to address inequity and environmental injustice in Minnesota. PI: Dr. Dean Current, Researcher and Director, Center for Integrated Natural Resource and Agricultural Management (CINRAM)

Building Cross-Organizational Relationships Through an Environmental Justice-Focused Earth Day (Twin Cities)

This venture intends to reorient the Earth Day event hosted at the University of Minnesota in spring 2019 towards environmental justice by gathering a diverse group of high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students to organize a program of speakers, activities, and community building that is intersectional at its core and integrative of the complexity of issues regarding climate change. This event will center the lens of environmental justice and show the student support for the movement, recognizing that a movement towards equitable, healthy, and accessible futures must acknowledge a variety of perspectives. PI: Julia Nerbonne, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology; Executive Director, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light

Ecosystem Response to Sulfate Geoengineering: a One Day Symposium (Twin Cities)

The magnitude of climate change and the severity of its effects are strongly coupled with the structure and function of agricultural and natural ecosystems. Sulfate geoengineering is a proposed short-term means of mitigating some of these effects, but is widely recognized as an insufficient solution to climate change; however, countries may nevertheless perceive it to be in their interest regardless of its unintended consequences. This one-day symposium will bring together students, faculty, and the public to discuss the effects that sulfate geoengineering may have on ecosystem function, and will introduce interdisciplinary tools and concepts that bear on understanding the effects of sulfate geoengineering for the biosphere. PI: Jason Hill, IonE Fellow and Associate Professor, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

Recreating “a lost world”: Community & Nutrient Dynamics in an Internationally Important, Endangered Wetland (Twin Cities)

The Cuatro Cienegas Basin (CCB) is an internationally recognized wetland within the Chihuahuan desert in Coahuila, Mexico that shelters over 99 species found nowhere else on Earth despite its poor nutrient conditions. Unfortunately, the CCB is experiencing increased rates of habitat modification from local agricultural and recreational dependency on aquatic resources, which accelerates extinction rates. During a transformative and transnational collaboration, this project will research microbial communities experiencing primeval conditions that resemble the origins of multicellular life. Using nutrient concentration data, the team will invent a “CCB microbe media” to preserve, test, and develop evolutionary and community ecological theory within the CCB, while fostering partnerships within and outside of the University of Minnesota. PI: Michael Travisano, Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project (Twin Cities)

The Solar Vehicle Project (SVP) is a UMN student group whose goal is to create better engineers, business people, and leaders while innovating solar vehicle technology. SVP 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 challenges: the World Solar Challenge and the American Solar Challenge. PI: David Orser, Assistant Teaching Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

West Bank Community Garden Project 2018-2019 (Twin Cities)

In the 2018-19 year, the West Bank Community Garden (WBCG) student group will continue to support its previously established projects and progress in expanding its purpose as an educational resource for both students and the surrounding community. Projects for the 2018-19 year include planting a winter cover-crop, planting and maintaining a community herb plot, planting perennials that allow for early-spring harvest, and introducing a few different gardening techniques (i.e. raised beds) to the garden. The group will also continue to coordinate educational seminars for elementary school students through workshops located in-class and in the garden. PI: Tom E. Michaels, Professor, Department of Horticultural Science

Catalyze a Meaningful Conversation about Current Developments in Iron Range through “Artifacts” of Harvested Stories (Twin Cities)

Minnesota is home to the native Indian Anishinabe people and to one of their traditional crops, wild rice. As areas originally inhabited by indigenous people become sources of iron and copper, wild rice harvests are affected; however, the mining industry also produces new jobs. To understand these impacts in totality, this project will host an event to explore the perspectives of range communities, political representatives, policy makers, and environmentalists to grasp the changes in livelihood patterns and opportunities that lie ahead. This exercise is part of the course in Ways of Knowing in the curriculum of Master of Development Practice in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. PI: David Wilsey, IonE Educator and Director of the MDP Program in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Law, Policy, Business Collaborative for Energy and the Environment (Twin Cities)

The LPBCEE is intended to establish lasting connections between the three West Bank professional schools by enabling meet and greets, educational events, and professional development opportunities that will connect professional students across disciplines in dialogue about energy and the environment. The outcome will be connected students who begin to work cross-collaboratively on energy projects, and will help to establish the U as the premier Midwest institution advancing renewable energy research and implementation. The scope will expand to the East Bank and include professionals from CSE by the fall of 2019. PI: Gabe Chan, IonE Fellow and Assistant Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Fostering Academic and Industrial Collaborative Relationships in Environmental Problem Solving (Duluth, Twin Cities)

Both scientific researchers and industrial manufacturers stand to gain a tremendous amount from collaborative, applied projects; yet oftentimes interactions can be difficult to navigate and require effective education and teamwork to bridge the gap between differing interests and objectives. This project will bring together a diverse and skilled team of academic scientists and industrial partners to investigate the interactive mechanisms between microorganisms and a peat-based material that enhances chromium (Cr) removal from industrial stormwater. PI: Brandy Toner, Associate Professor, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate

Using Augmented Reality to Visualize Ian McHarg’s ‘An Ecological Analysis of the Twin Cities’ (Twin Cities)

The Twin Cities region was among the first places where Ian McHarg applied his geographic overlay analysis. McHarg’s work produced dozens of maps of the region that were used to develop policies for protecting ecosystems services. Now preserved in the Borchert Map Library, this project will create an augmented reality application to allow residents, teachers, practitioners, and instructors to view and interact with the maps McHarg created for the Twin Cities fifty years ago. PI: Dan Milz, Visiting Assistant Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Creating a Twin Cities PUI Sustainable Polymer Education and Research Consortium (Twin Cities)

Professors Wissinger and Wentzel have successfully developed new polymer experiments for the undergraduate classroom that model green chemistry principles and new discoveries in environmentally-friendly polymers. The goal of this project is to share the curriculum materials and cutting-edge research efforts of the Center for Sustainable Polymers with chemistry faculty from local primary undergraduate institutions through a workshop and development of a research consortium. Intended results are to motivate faculty to engage students in chemistry classrooms, laboratories, and research with the important topic of plastics in society and the need for the development of more sustainable materials. PI: Jane E. Wissinger, IonE Educator and Distinguished University Teaching Professor/Organic Lab Director, Department of Chemistry

Waste to Worth 2019 (Twin Cities)

This project aims to encourage, support and develop the next generation of environmental leaders through travel support for students participating in the Ron Sheffield Memorial Student Poster Competition at the Waste to Worth 2019 Conference in Minneapolis, MN. The Waste to Worth Conference gathers together the nation’s best science on animal agriculture and the environment, and strives to combine research and technical knowledge with application of science on the farm. The conference has a multidisciplinary emphasis and promotes a collaborative atmosphere. PI: Erin Cortus, Assistant Professor, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering

Development of a Genetic Test to Identify the Sex of Common Buckthorn Plants (Rhamnus Cathartica) Prior to Flowering (Twin Cities)

Due to insufficient availability of genetic sex determination tools, it is difficult to determine the sex of plant species with separate male and female individuals prior to flowering. Therefore, it is often assumed that juvenile individuals of all sexes are identical. This is a particular problem for long-lived species of ecological concern, such as the restricted noxious shrub common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). This project proposes the establishment of an interdisciplinary team of scientists who will work together to develop a genetic test to identify the sex of common buckthorn plants, which will then be used to create more accurate models of buckthorn population growth rates, which can help target management of this invasive plant. PI: Jo Heuschele, Post-Doctoral Associate, Department of Agronomy & Plant Genetics

Backyard Science: Urban Conservation led by Citizen Scientists (Twin Cities)

Cities will house more than 68 percent of the human population by 2050, and cover an increasingly large amount of Earth’s habitat. Backyard Science is a citizen scientist-led urban conservation effort that aims to promote urban conservation while enabling households to engage directly in science through hands-on data collection. The project will install raised beds planted with a standardized mix of native annual and perennial wildflowers at participating households across the metro area. Households will help to collect data on plant health, pollinator visitation, and other important ecological dynamics. Backyard Science will serve as an innovative tool to promote conservation, scientific understanding, and experiential education across the Twin Cities. PI: David Moeller, Associate Professor, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology

Great Lakes Design Lab’s ‘Experimental Forest’ Workshop (Duluth, Twin Cities)

The Great Lakes Design Lab (GLDL)’s ‘Experimental Forest’ Workshop will convene designers working on issues of adaptable and resilient landscape design to collectively develop design proposals for the GLDL’s ‘Experimental Forest’ landscape laboratory at the Cloquet Forestry Center. This workshop will include two days of public talks to share multi-disciplinary perspectives and knowledge, three days of design development, presentations of the proposals, and an exhibition of the work developed. Collaborators will include representatives from UMN and other universities throughout the Great Lakes region, as well as local collaborators such as SeaGrant Minnesota. PI: Karen Lutsky, IonE Associate, GLDL Director

Development of a Prospective Sustainability Life-Cycle Assessment Tool (PSLCA) for Technology and Product Development Projects (Duluth)

Tools are available to quantify the environmental or social impacts of a product or process; however, they are generally expensive and used post-facto, relying on data gathered after a product is manufactured or a process is operational. This project aims to identify a framework for the development of a screening-level prospective sustainability life-cycle assessment tool that will reveal environmental, economic, and social impacts of a product or process in early stages of development. A team of collaborators will be chosen to create, test, and refine the new tool. PI: Matthew D. Aro, UMN-Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute

Destination Discovery: St. Paul Campus (Twin Cities)

The St. Paul campus is home to many vital institutions that support the University of Minnesota’s Land Grant mission, which are perhaps not all visible to the general public, students and alumni. To address this challenge, a steering committee has developed a vision and event that will encourage a connection to the campus as a community destination for information, design innovation, creative research, and applied science. PI: Lisa Philander, Curator: CBS Conservatory

Deep Work Retreat: Making Advances on Grand Environmental Challenges in a Distracted World (Crookston, Duluth, Twin Cities)

This early-career, interdisciplinary deep work retreat for IonE Associates, their mentors, research partners and other IonE Affiliates will provide the time and space to work and network at a deeper, more enriching level, which will not only aid in increasing research success, but provide pathways for future collaborations and deeper relationships to strengthen the IonE community. Given the growing list of expectations and competencies required of engaged researchers, peer strategizing and learning can aid in both building research capacity and managing these expanding expectations. PI: Kristi Kremers, Director of Graduate Leadership Programs, Institute on the Environment

Sustainable Energy Transition and Community Resilience: Research in Partnership with Puerto Rico (Twin Cities)

Through a partnership between the UMN School of Architecture, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Institute on the Environment, and the Puerto Rican-led, trans-disciplinary research platform Resilience through Innovation in Sustainable Energy (RISE), an interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students traveled to Puerto Rico in January 2019. IonE funding will provide scholarships for Puerto Rican students to visit Minnesota, fund a campus event in February to share what was learned in the January course, and support a community event in May for Minnesota-based Puerto Ricans and others to learn about research conducted over the past year by the 24 colleges and Universities in the RISE network. PI: Megan Voorhees, Co-Director, Acara

Exploring Diversity in Insects and our World (Twin Cities)

The Department of Entomology’s Diversity and Inclusivity (D&I) Committee plans to take action on the department’s goal of increasing understanding of the hardships that limit academia’s marginalized communities. To accomplish this, the D&I Committee will invite a guest speaker to give a lecture or lead a workshop on a topic surrounding equity and diversity in order to both directly expand knowledge and spark conversations among department members. Acquired knowledge will be used to discuss and implement policy changes that will increase access and equity for everyone within the Entomology department. PI: David Andow, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Department of Entomology

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