Breath of fresh air: Environmental student’s internship fixes on climate action

Amy Duke
May 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Leaving her footprint on the natural world — in a reduced-carbon kind of way — has been a long-held aspiration for Sarah Schanwald.

The recent Penn State graduate, who holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental resource management from the College of Agricultural Sciences, is well on her way to doing that based on the strength of her experiences at the University. The most recent of these involved creating a climate action plan as an intern with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“I’ve always dreamed of having a career that would allow me to raise awareness about environmental issues and food justice,” said Schanwald, of Pittsburgh, who also has a minor in sustainability leadership. “I want to inspire others to be good stewards of the land and to respect the great outdoors.”

The Schreyer Honors College alumna became interested in supporting climate change mitigation initiatives during the summer of 2019, when she was part of a cohort of student researchers who worked with Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization focused on finding regenerative climate solutions for the world.

Under the guidance of Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the students explored how anaerobic digestion could play a role in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in Pittsburgh to meet the city’s climate action plan.

“That got me interested in understanding how governments have been taking steps to address climate change,” Schanwald said. “So, when the opportunity presented itself to get involved with the DEP as a climate assistance intern, I couldn’t pass it up.”

She was one of 25 students from across the commonwealth who took part in the internship, which was designed as a remote opportunity even before COVID-19. These interns supported 20 local governments in developing climate action plans, noted Heidi Kunka, energy program specialist with the DEP.

“Gov. Tom Wolf has declared climate change to be the most critical environmental threat facing the world,” Kunka said. “One of the 19 strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan is for state and local governments to lead by example in practices and assets. Our department created this program to support local governments in leading by example on climate change.”

Schanwald worked with officials in Elizabeth Township in Allegheny County to identify climate hazards, such as extreme heat days and intense rainstorms, as well as the populations and infrastructure that will be vulnerable to those hazards. She also supported the township as it engaged residents and businesses in the climate action plan development.

She learned how to use software that analyzes and forecasts emissions, thanks to project partner and DEP grantee, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, a global network of local and regional governments focused on sustainable development.

“This internship has shown me that environmental resource management doesn’t address just watersheds, the health of ecosystems and agricultural production, but it also addresses urban planning, social justice and resiliency,” Schanwald said. “I’ve also learned how important stakeholders are in creating a plan. With their support in implementing enough small-scale solutions, we can make big strides in addressing climate change at the local level.”

Kunka said Schanwald’s contributions to the internship program were noteworthy. “We had significant interest in this inaugural year of our program from college students across the commonwealth and thus were able to be very selective,” she said. “Sarah stood out from other candidates because she is a stellar and highly-motivated student.”

Aside from her internship, Schanwald took part in a variety of academic and extracurricular programs while at Penn State, including being a service-learning trip leader for three Penn State Alternative Break programs and serving as director of community partnerships for Fresh START, which is a day of service at Penn State intended to help first-year and change-of-campus students get rooted in service.

Through the School for Field Studies, she spent part of the fall 2019 semester at the Center for Sustainable Development in Atenas, Costa Rica, where she conducted research on water quality. It was one of three research projects in which Schanwald took part as an undergraduate.

“Sarah’s senior honors thesis on measuring environmental awareness differences in urban and rural high school students was exceptionally well done and demonstrated a level of critical thinking more commonly seen in graduate students,” said environmental resource management program coordinator Robert Shannon, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. “It was a pleasure to be her academic adviser for four years and to witness the breadth of experiences she had as a student.”

Next up for Schanwald is a year-long fellowship with the service organization, Repair the World Pittsburgh, where she will work with several nonprofits in addressing the problems of food insecurity, environmental injustice, homelessness and poverty.

“Penn State has taught me that experiences are just as important as, if not more important than, academics when growing professionally and personally,” she said. “I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities I have been given, and I am excited for the future.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 21, 2020