Spring 2021 sustainable communities expo highlights student engaged scholarship

Halina Dingo
June 03, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Spring 2021 Virtual Campus and Community Sustainability EXPO is now available online, showcasing student engaged scholarship from more than 20 projects addressing sustainability challenges in local communities and at Penn State. The EXPO is part of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC), a program of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute since 2013. 

“The EXPO has always been, first and foremost, a celebration of student work,” said Ilona Ballreich, manager of the SCC and organizer of the EXPO. She emphasized how, through the EXPO, students get the opportunity to showcase their work, to learn about other sustainability projects and to connect with their project leaders in the community. 

At the same time, community partners such as the Borough of State College attend the EXPO to see completed projects and to get a sense of how Penn State students can help local communities in the future.

“It’s a marketplace for ideas,” added Ballreich. 

SCC projects draw on the work of students and professors from all areas of Penn State, with projects this year ranging from streamflow research to graphic design for K-12 lesson booklets to moderating community forums on climate change. 

Despite COVID-19 challenges, students still completed many in-person projects. For example, a capstone project for Biological Engineering 460W and 466W worked in Walnut Springs Park in State College, under the guidance of Megan Marshall, associate teaching professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. Students designed a new footbridge for the park, as one of the current footbridges has been subject to stream erosion. They visited the site and were able to work in person to take measurements and assess the structure. The students’ final design of the bridge potentially would be able to withstand a 5-year storm. 

Assistant Teaching Professor Tara Wyckoff’s Communications 473 class worked with Pennsylvania Envirothon, a high school environmental education program, to create a comprehensive communications program to expand the diversity of students participating in their classes. 

“The students quickly uncovered that the program’s offerings needed to be more inclusive,” explained Wycoff. “Our conversations covered representation in environmental education and related professions, communicating [diversity, equity, and inclusion] programs authentically, as well as helping organizations prepare and plan.” 

“I often get feedback that my students really appreciate having a ‘real client’ who is invested in the project,” added Wycoff. “They say it makes the work more meaningful and mirrors client-based work that they will soon be doing in their professions.”

Though most SCC projects draw on work of upperclassmen or graduate students, a few classes showcased at the EXPO feature young undergraduates’ work. Alec Spangler, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and his LARCH 116 students examined possible redesigns for State College’s Sidney Friedman Park.

"We took on the park as the main design project for our students, with [State College] Borough representatives visiting the class to provide their perspective and feedback on the students' work throughout the term,” explained Spangler.

This year, the Center for Immersive Environments at Penn State helped create a virtual, 360-degree tour of the entire park site for students who weren’t able to visit due to remote-learning restrictions. This allowed every student to be able to create a proposed park redesign to be showcased at the EXPO. 

“As beginners, the students don't have many tools yet for evaluating the quality of their own work,” added Alec Spangler. “When someone who is connected to the site can engage with a project and have a real conversation based on the students' ideas … it shows the possibility of ideas becoming real, even for younger designers.”

The Spring 2021 Virtual EXPO will remain available online to everyone throughout the summer and features student project reports, designs and project overviews for all the spring 2021 SCC projects. For more information about the SCC program and how campus classes can connect with community partners on sustainability challenges, contact Ballreich at ixb20@psu.edu.

About the Sustainable Communities Collaborative

The SCC facilitates partnerships between Penn State classes and community partners seeking help to advance their sustainability goals. Students engage in applied, real-world research that benefits communities that otherwise lack the time, resources or expertise to undertake initial steps on their projects. The student projects do not replace the work of professionals, but act as catalysts to begin new work. Currently six Penn State campuses employ the SCC model, which last year engaged 655 students on the University Park campus alone, led by faculty from eight colleges and working on 46 distinct projects serving more than 20 community partners.

Last Updated June 03, 2021