Study Away Pittsburgh program brings sustainability learning closer to home

Gabrielle Stewart
August 01, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The opportunity to study off campus is a perfect way for students to broaden their educational experience. But study abroad may not be appropriate for all students: Some may not be able to afford the costs while others may not be ready to travel out of the country.

That’s where domestic “study away” programs like Penn State’s Study Away Pittsburgh fit in. The program is designed to give students an immersive, semester-long opportunity to study urban sustainability while living in Pittsburgh.

The program combines three components: an embedded field experience or internship with a community partner, a residential course in urban sustainability challenges and solutions, and online courses.

Three students, Erifili Draklellis, James Tierney and Jordyn Hinkle, from Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, recently participated in the program during the 2018-19 academic year.

“I wanted to study somewhere that was a little familiar,” said Tierney, a rising senior in geosciences. “Pittsburgh allowed me to stay close to friends at Penn State and close to home in Cleveland. Gaining an understanding of Pittsburgh’s sustainability issues helped me to understand what was going on in my own home city.”

For Draklellis, the program’s adaptability was also was a perk.

“I didn’t want to fall behind on my academic plan, and Pittsburgh Study Away allowed me to keep up with my major courses while I gained professional development experience through my internship,” said Draklellis, who graduated this May with a bachelor of science degree in earth science and policy and a minor in sustainability leadership.

Study Away also exposes students to real-world examples of sustainability practices. A trip to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens showed them the world’s only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum-certified greenhouse. Students also visited the conservatory’s LEED platinum and net-zero-energy sustainability building — the Center for Sustainable Landscapes — that generates all of its own energy and treats all storm and sanitary water captured onsite.

Phipps Conservatory Penn State Center Pittsburgh Study Away

Penn State Study Away Participants Jamie Parke, James Tierney and Demi Badejo; David Himes, sustainable communities coordinator for the Penn State Center Pittsburgh; Penn State Study Away Participant Jordyn Hinkle and Ron Rademacher, volunteer docent for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, during a visit to the gardens which are located in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

IMAGE: Penn State

Students also visited local neighborhoods to discover connections between urban areas and their smaller communities.

“We visited a neighborhood that used storm and rain gardens for flood prevention,” Tierney said. “But even if a neighborhood like that is perfect, they’ll suffer consequences from their neighbors unless there is communication and cooperation between the communities,” he said.

Students also benefited from their mandatory urban sustainability course taught by local sustainability experts.

“We learned from professionals in the field who are seeking to make their cities more sustainable and resilient,” Draklellis said.

Students are matched with one of 24 Pittsburgh community partners to work on research and real-world projects addressing urban sustainability in the Pittsburgh area.

Tierney, who worked with the Allegheny County Conservation District, praised the selection process.

“They paired us up very well,” he said. “They know that when they match you with a partner, it’ll be for work in something you’re interested in.”

Tierney found that his pairing introduced him to a new discipline. His internship focus, processing and testing soil for lead contamination, didn’t seem to align with his interests at first. But after work with the Conservation District, including planning an urban soils symposium, Tierney found that urban soils involvement had motivated him further to pursue an environmental geoscience career path.

“After getting some feet-on-the-ground experience in a job like that, I realized this is something I could see myself doing,” Tierney said.

Draklellis’s internship with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council had a similar effect. She contributed to a landscape grant and collaborated firsthand across private, nonprofit and public sectors. This fall, she will be pursuing a master of public administration degree in environmental science and policy at Columbia University.

“Study Away shifted my trajectory at Penn State, and helped me to realize my passion,” Draklellis said. “I don’t think I would be on the path that I am without this program.”

The Study Away programs are open to students from any major who will have achieved sophomore standing by time of placement. Students can apply online and fellowship and grant opportunities are available. Visit Study Away Pittsburgh and Study Away Philadelphia for more information.

In fall 2019, Penn State is renaming these programs to City Semester Pittsburgh and City Semester Philadelphia.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 01, 2019