‘Reinventing’ sustainability: A collaborative passion

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 26, issue of the Beaver Stadium Pictorial.

A portable, lightweight wind turbine to assist with energy demands during a natural disaster; an on-campus food bank for hungry, food-insecure students; greenhouse technology to help small share farmers in Africa grow their own food and diversify their diets; and thousands of photographs taken to document the transformation in our local communities resulting from the Marcellus Shale boom.

These are the creations of Penn State students with a passion for addressing sustainability issues — locally, regionally and across the globe — with assistance from the Reinvention Fund, an internal grant program to support collaborative projects by faculty, staff and students that improve and expand sustainability efforts at Penn State. The fund, managed by the University’s Sustainability Institute, invested more than $850,000 in such projects in 2014 and simultaneously provided valuable learning experiences for the participants.

A food bank for students — by students

Food insecurity is a problem that is not often associated with U.S. college students, but it is a problem even in happiest of valleys. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that an estimated 14.3 percent of American households were food insecure — lacking access to enough food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle — for all household members in 2013.

With $555 in support from the Reinvention Fund, a group of Penn State students created the Lion’s Pantry, an on-campus food bank intended to supplement the food budget of students in need by providing a weekly assortment of goods, donated by community members and corporate partners.

“Grocery bills add up and are just one part of the equation in paying for an education,” said Alex Mendonca, a student organizer of Lion’s Pantry, adding that being unable to pay for food shouldn’t be one of the reasons students have to withdraw from school.

“I’ve heard stories about students and met students who sacrifice everything for the dream of getting a college degree,” said Jake Ruddy, a student organizer for the pantry. “My hope is the pantry will allow students to focus on their education, not where their next meal will come from.”

The Lion’s Pantry is open to all Penn State students in need. The only requirement is a student ID.

A living filter

All the wastewater from Penn State, after it passes through the wastewater treatment plant, is sprayed onto agricultural fields and forest sites, utilizing the natural filter of plants, soils, and rocks to further purify the water before it is once again used for drinking water.

The Living Filter is one of the leading innovative solutions to sustainable wastewater disposal. Additionally, sprayed wastewater also contributes to the growth of agricultural fields, providing nutrients for crop growth.

Geosciences student Jacob Hagedorn wanted to know for himself exactly how and why the Living Filter worked the way that it does, and that it worked well and efficiently. With this in mind, he approached the Reinvention Fund and received $12,950 to conduct an independent systematic evaluation of nutrient filtering.

His research confirmed that the Living Filter processes excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from wastewater so that it is truly clean and can be reused without polluting fresh water. (This type of pollution typically contributes to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay — areas with low amounts of oxygen — where fish, crabs, oysters and other aquatic creatures can suffocate.)

Hagedorn not only learned a lot about research, but also how to follow through on ideas.

“I’m really thankful to the Sustainability Institute for the opportunity to work on this project because the process has been so much more than academic,” he said. “It’s been learning how to take an idea, figure out the information you need to see if that idea is legitimate, and learn how to take that idea and execute it.”

Affordable greenhouses in Africa

More than 200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have insufficient food, while one-third of them are grossly malnourished. Food security issues have escalated in recent years due to factors of drought and high level of poverty among farmers. There is broad agreement on the need to help small farmers in the developing world to move from subsistence to sustainability, and assist larger private sector engagement in agriculture.

Building on the work of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, a group of students advised by Khanjan Mehta, assistant professor of engineering design, helped refine current affordable greenhouse technology, with $4,950 in support from the Reinvention Fund, to help these farmers.

The team taught the farmers how to use greenhouse technology to grow food and diversify their diets, helping them to become more food-secure in a grain-heavy and food-insecure region. The greenhouses were made locally, with local materials, and have now been scaled-up for widespread dissemination through a network of distribute microenterprises throughout West Africa.

The program’s strong performance has earned it a $500,000 USAID grant with $250,000 cost share from World Hope International, an extremely competitive grant that drew over 500 applicants, with awards going to only 17 organizations.

“This project has very tangible benefits to all the stakeholders,” said Mehta. “It’s not just environmental. It’s environmental, economic, and it’s social all at the same time in an applied manner with very clear impact to partnering communities.”

Storied images: Marcellus Shale

In 2004, Range Resources successfully extracted natural gas from the Renz #1 well in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Since then, the natural gas industry has boomed in the Commonwealth, successfully horizontally drilling and hydraulically fracturing (fracking) thousands of wells in the Marcellus Shale.

Penn State photography professors Steven Rubin and Katarin Parizek oversaw students in narrative and environmental photography courses in shooting thousands of images that help show some of the impacts of shale gas drilling in local communities.

“We gave our students a unique opportunity to have a real-life, realhands-on, real-world experience,” said Rubin, “trying to make sense of a really critical, very topical, vital national and increasingly international issue.

“For students to have their fingers on the shutter of this issue, to get them out of the classroom and out into communities, out into the forest and onto farms, then talking with people and trying to make sense of this issue and render it (not just look at it), and figure out how to use photographs to tell other people about it who were not there, how to move people emotionally and how to inform them at the same time… It’s a great hands-on experience in how to be communicators,” he said. “That to me is what education is about.”

The students’ photos were displayed last fall in various galleries on the University Park campus, and are featured in a permanent virtual gallery on sustainability.psu.edu/gallery/storied-images-marcellus-shale.

Remote wind power for disaster relief

Sometimes in addition to exploring sustainability solutions, the participants learn unexpected lessons.

Last year marked the inaugural year of the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored Collegiate Wind Competition, and Penn State’s Remote Wind Power team had a goal of designing and building a portable, lightweight wind turbine to power a small electronic device that could be used quickly in a disaster relief situation.

The team received $8,688 from the Reinvention Fund for their project and traveled to California in May 2014. The competition was almost over for them before it began.

“We believe part of the turbine became loose during testing, causing the rotor to spin off in the middle of our third and final practice test in the wind tunnel,” said Susan Stewart, a principal investigator of the project.

The team quickly collected their thoughts and investigated where they could get a new set of blades overnight. “It turned out our original printer, Solid Concepts, had an operation in Los Angeles,” Stewart said. “They agreed to do a rush order for us, but couldn’t ship them in time to make our test window.”

Aerospace engineering graduate student Brian Wallace wasn’t going to let distance set the team back. “He got up at the crack of dawn, rented a car, drove to L.A. and picked them up,” said Stewart. After a long night, the team put their broken turbine back together. They captured mutliple awards, and became the top finisher in the competition.

Some students on the team earned even more than an award: “When I was interviewing for jobs, it was one of the things that they wanted to talk about… how we performed in this competition and how I did as a supervisor for the competition,” he said. “I ended up with a job at Sikorski Aircraft, so it’s a tangible benefit to me.”

Uncommon innovation

Overall, the Reinvention Fund last year funded 11 student projects and 22 faculty and staff projects, awarding more than $875,000 total to five of Penn State’s campuses.

These projects included a soilless living wall; assistance for local organic farmers in the form of “Crop Mobs”; a pollinator garden; the installation of energy efficient hand dryers in restrooms at Penn State Berks; and more.

More than 80 faculty, 60 staff, and 150 students have been engaged in sustainability research, project implementation, service, coursework and internships.

“Internal sustainability grant programs of this magnitude are not common within Big Ten universities, especially for student teams,” said Denice Wardrop, director of the Sustainability Institute. “We need innovation by all, at all scales, across generations and capacities,” she added. “The Reinvention Fund provides unique whitespace for this innovation to occur.”

Visit www.sustainability.psu.edu/reinvention or email reinvention@psu.

Last Updated September 29, 2015