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President’s sustainability research fellowship expanded, refined

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Amos Frye ’18, a fellow of the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship program, worked first as a landscaper and farmhand in high school, then as a volunteer for the Student Conservation Association, working on trails in Hopewell Furnace, Pa., and Kenai Fjords, Alaska. Over the last two summers, he has worked for two different Conservation Corps, one based in Salida, Colo., and one based in Cedar City, Utah. He has spent most of his working time pulling weeds, digging holes for water retention (biotension) basins, removing invasive plant species, and managing trails — until his PSRF project allowed him to direct a sustainability effort in his own community at Swarthmore.

“I’ve worked in conservation a lot, but I’ve never been the person who manages the project; I’ve just been the grunt who does the work,” Frye said. “It’s interesting to get on the other side and see what goes into those issues of restoration and conservation [and] what work goes into the planning process.”

The PSRF program, which is a hybrid of a two-credit, yearlong course and an internship, assigns projects and staff and faculty mentors to a select group of students. There are 17 PSRF fellows this year, seven more than there were during the program’s pilot year in 2016 – 2017. Departments can request PSRF projects, but they are funded outside of the academic departments.

“All the things that would have been done, there’s just no one around to do them — that’s essentially all PSRF projects,” Frye said. “[Administrators, staff and faculty] saw the potential for improvement, but they don’t have the time or the resources. Since we’re paid outside of each department [and] we’re not paid much, that allows for that work.”

This year, the PSRF program has expanded and evolved to include the Alumni Sages, a group of alumni with careers in sustainability who provide resources and insider knowledge as well as new planning mechanisms, new work spaces, and changes to the yearlong timeline of the class. Projects this year focus on improving environmental friendliness all over and surrounding the campus, from Sharples to the Athletics Department to the office building at 101 S. Chester.

Frye currently works on the Crum Woods Stewardship and Engagement project, which Gabi Mallory ’17 and Brittany Weiderhold ’18 began during the last academic year. His project includes four distinct subprojects: preventing erosion by restoring native plants at Morganwood Slope, a retirement community near Mary Lyon residence hall; evaluating and managing peak flow and erosion at the Lang Swale, a ditch behind Lang Concert Hall that absorbs around 99 percent of stormwater from the academic quad; working on a comprehensive restoration plan for the Crum Woods; and planning engagement events with the office of sustainability’s community outreach coordinator.

The PSRF project directed by Natasha Markov-Riss ’20, which aims to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices at Office of Student Engagement events, has led to an interesting discovery.

“It seems like one big area where we need to get better with sustainability is the red Solo cup issue,” Markov-Riss said. “They’re #6 [plastic], so they’re not recyclable. At every party, we’re using two to three bags of them, upwards of 200, and those are all being thrown away.”

But when Markov-Riss began researching alternatives for red Solo cup usage, she discovered that students were reluctant to give them up.

“There’s more of a connection to and love of red Solo cups than we originally anticipated,” she said. “They are super entrenched in [the] culture of American drinking, they’re regulation for different drinking games, and people aren’t super willing to move away from them.”

Markov-Riss instead decided to search for recycling programs that would recycle the cups for free.

“So that way, instead of going upstream, we may try and tackle that problem downstream just because the goal is to create sustainable solutions that are in themselves sustainable, and we want people to be on board with them,” she said. “One of the goals of this project is not just to force sustainability solutions in students.”

Markov-Riss plans to create a strategic sustainability plan for the OSE that will include recommendations for the next one to two years. She also hopes to hold a launch event for students and to implement one or two of her recommendations before the year is over.

“Right now I’m doing a really thorough baseline analysis of where the campus is at right now in terms of sustainability,” Markov-Riss said. “I’m interviewing all the different people involved in all the different programs under the OSE, and that’s more people than you would expect: van coordinators, everyone who runs Paces, everyone who’s in charge of any event on campus — so that’s PubNite, [Delta Upsilon], Phi Psi, [Mary Lyon] breakfast, [and] Swat Team.”

In contrast, much of Frye’s work involves hydrology, the study of how water moves over land on campus. Peak flow rate is an important metric for this study because it gives an idea of how a 25-year or 50-year storm event (storms that have a 4 or 2 percent chance of occurring each year) would affect the campus. Biotension basins, which are large ditches filled with hardy plants, are one of the ways the college decreases peak flow rate by increasing surface area over which water can slowly percolate into the soil.

“There’s a lot of interesting stuff on campus that they’re doing with stormwater now,” Frye said. “It’s sort of the biggest modern issue when it comes to civil engineering for big buildings, because there’s been recently a lot of laws passed and you can’t have peak flow rates any higher at a construction project than they were before for a 50-year storm. Swarthmore does better than that because I think [it’s] going for a silver or gold star.”

The College aims to earn a gold star from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Bridget Scott is an office of sustainability intern and Teaching Assistant for the PSRF class. Her PSRF project last year involved helping to creating a STARS report, which contains 63 different credits of sustainability, for the college. Last year, the college received a STAR rating of silver, which lasts for three years.

“Silver rating is really, really exciting because it means we’re doing well, but we can definitely do better,” Scott said.

The student engagement component of Frye’s project involves the Crum Woods tree planting event. The event was traditionally a mandatory activity during orientation, but it has been since made optional and moved to the spring. Frye also feels that the goal of PSRF engagement activities is to balance attendance with healthy student interest.

“It’s kind of hard to get people excited if they’re forced to go,” Frye said. “The idea is you want to get people who are actually interested or at least adjacently interested first, because if you force someone out into the woods and they don’t want to be there, you generally don’t engender positive feelings.”

Holding engagement events such as the Crum Woods tree planting involves a lot of  planning time, as does every aspect of the PSRF projects. Last year, students began the class by studying why sustainability is necessary on college campuses and learning other environmental science concepts, but this year, co-instructors Aurora Winslade and Carr Everbach switched the order of the class in order to incorporate time for fellows to plan projects and anticipate setbacks before they occurred.

“[Last year] we kind of developed our projects in the fall and carried them out more in the spring, but this year the fellows started and they just went off running,” Scott said. “Last year we didn’t really give ourselves enough time to plan our projects out for the totality of the year, so this way, the fellows came in with a much more clear sense of what the purpose of their project was.”

This fall, the co-instructors of the course have taught methods of planning and executing projects instead of beginning with studying applied environmental science concepts.

“The first part of the class focuses a lot on project management, because they want everyone to get the projects off the ground,” Markov-Riss said.

According to Scott — whose job includes taking feedback and handling difficulties that PSRF fellows bring to her — one of the most common problems is communication with project mentors as well as faculty and staff in the department connected to the project. Though the project board is a very helpful tool for facilitating this communication, she says, the amount of people involved can complicate planning.

“One of my favorite parts of the PSRF projects is that for each student, they have a faculty mentor [or] a staff mentor, but then they also have their project board … That’s the approval board that moves your project forward for each stage of the game,” Scott said. “[But] in communicating with all those different people, information is really likely to get lost.”

According to Markov-Riss, the changes made to the program this year have improved the ability of students to communicate with their approval board and to carry out their projects effectively.

“We’re sending out weekly updates to our project board. The project feels very well mechanized and very well [systematized], so you definitely feel like you have a direction and you feel like there are support systems in place, so I’ve definitely learned a lot about project management. I think they refined the whole class.”

Many of the changes to the program were made in response to student feedback from last year, which Scott compiled during her internship this summer. One concern from students was the amount of work they put into the project. Eight paid hours per week and 10-12 academic hours are built into the program, but some students last year would go over the allotted amount of hours. According to Scott, changes are also being made by the class’s co-instructors as well as Eugene M. Lang Professor Denise Crossen to clarify the difference between work hours and academic hours.

“A difference this year is that — this is actually great, this is one of the most exciting parts — is that the Innovation Lab in the Lang Center [for Civic and Social Responsibility], the Social Innovation Lab, has become a space for PSRF,” Scott said. “Last year we would do our work hours whenever we wanted to, but this year it models more of a job system, which is nice.”

For all of these projects, fellows will create a handbook or plan containing the best practices in their project area at Swarthmore in the future.

“Institutional memory [is] a huge part of the program,” Scott said.

The program’s dual nature is meant to both give students experience and to provide a way for sustainability improvements to occur all over campus without relying only on departmental resources.

“That’s one of the main purposes of the PSRF program: to give students the power and the resources to carry out these projects and to get that real life experience [with] sustainability in their own communities,” Scott said. “But it’s also really to create these structures at Swarthmore that will last and really push sustainable change.”

PSRF fellows will present their findings — including baseline analyses, effectiveness of changes already implemented, and plans for the future — to the Swarthmore community in a public meeting in April.

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