July 27, 2011

Sustainability Scholars: Student Group Works to Solve Environmental Problems

Students load one of the College’s Earth Tub composting units.

For Austin Weidner ’12 (Kutztown, Pa.), being involved with the Society of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (SEES) made sense because “solving environmental problems locally, as well as globally, requires a united effort. One person cannot make a large change, but rather many people making one small change.”

Weidner serves as a project leader for SEES, a dynamic, student-run group that is working hard to promote student research in sustainability, local sustainability improvement projects, and sustainability in the community through outreach programs.

“At first when deciding to become a civil engineering major I thought (as do many people) that it was all about structures, bridges, roads, and dams. It wasn’t until I started taking classes that I realized how much of it is water and environmental issues,” says Weidner. “What really struck me was how many projects SEES was working on and how those projects made major changes that impacted the college community.”

SEES is working on several projects including a campus-wide food loop, using nitrogen levels to improve composting, removing heavy metals from water runoff through pervious pavement, using soap-like chemicals to remove pesticides, the removal of pollutant chemicals using colonies of bacteria, and community outreach and education efforts.

Jennifer Bell ’11 oversees Lafayette’s organic garden near Metzgar Fields.

Not only is the group involved with a bevy of projects, but it has a very interdisciplinary approach pulling from student and faculty expertise in engineering, chemistry, biology, and geology and is open to students from any major.

“When students take clubs like SEES seriously, and in-turn take charge, then they really begin to grow beyond the confines of a classroom. I wish more students outside the sciences and engineering would get involved with SEES,” says faculty adviser Arthur Kney, associate professor and head of civil & environmental engineering. “The more informed and educated all people are with regard to environmental issues the better off we all are.  What better place to do this than a liberal arts college with an engineering program where we promote hands-on opportunities for all undergraduates from all disciplines?”

SEES faculty advisers also include Steve Mylon, associate professor of chemistry, and John Greenleaf, visiting assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering.

The club has seen a great deal of success. Its research has been published or presented at numerous venues including the Journal of Environmental Management, the National Sustainable Design Expo, the American Society of Civil Engineers World Environmental & Water Resources Congress, the Pennsylvania American Water Works Association annual conference, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, and the Naval Academy Science and Engineering Conference.

The food loop project has secured more than $200,000 in grants and donations, including an EPA Phase I: People Prosperity, and Planet grant, a Clinton Foundation Grant, a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and a donation from the Ludwick Foundation.  The project involves composting food waste from Lafayette’s dining halls that is then used to fertilize the crops grown at the College’s organic gardens at Metzgar Fields, which in turn are used back in the dining halls. The goal is to compost up to 1,000 pounds of 1,300 pounds of food and yard waste the school produces a day.

The composting and gardening projects were what attracted Jennifer Bell ’11 to SEES. Bell graduated in May with a B.S. in geology and has stayed on as garden manager and Metzgar Environmental Project coordinator.

“I liked that these projects are fundamental and have a direct impact on our local environment: reducing the amount of waste headed to the landfill and growing our own food on campus.  I think our world is too often neglected and abused and therefore we need people to stand up for it,” she says.

In terms of community outreach, SEES has a partnership with the Bangor Area School District, Lafayette’s Kids in the Community program, and The DaVinci Center in Allentown in an effort to educate children about environmental issues. The group has participated in the Landis Center’s Literacy Day by organizing interactive activities related to environmental topics and hosts several research presentations and workshops on campus.

“Working with SEES has really defined my interests toward sustainability,” says Weidner. “SEES has provided me with first-hand experience in research, design, grant-writing, and the headaches of policy and administration.”

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