University initiative sees substantial growth


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Students are trading in textbooks and homework for shovels and paintbrushes.

What started as a small program in the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning has rapidly ballooned into a diverse field, not only spanning campus but reaching into surrounding communities as well.

The Iowa Initiative For Sustainable Communities began in 2009 with the intention of engaging students in hands-on projects to improve sustainability in neighboring towns. While it only had a handful of students and faculty during its inception, the initiative became campus-wide last year. It currently possesses 160 students working on 30 projects.

UI graduate student Tammy Walkner, who is involved with two of the initiatives’ programs, said she believes the sudden growth is likely due to the ability to gain practical experience.

“It allows students to have real-world applications for their study,” she said. “For my project, I am learning hands-on methods and can put that on my résumé.  It’s not just an assignment, it’s getting out there and actually applying what we learn.”

Walkner said what would have been strictly in-class assignments are now broadened into real work, which offers help to towns and people.

“You’re learning communication skills, how to effect change, and other practices outside of academics, which students can really benefit from,” she said.

The initiative now draws students from nine departments, mostly focusing on engineering and other sciences, but including art and English students as well. Program coordinator Nick Benson said the initiative aims at a holistic definition of sustainability.

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about sustainable growth and development in Iowa’s communities,” he said. “That means responsible economic growth, expansion of art and culture, and we want to create a sense of place in Iowa communities where future families will want to live.”

Liz Christiansen, the UI Office of Sustainability director and an Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities board member, said she has noticed a large push in the effort to bring on campus proactive attitudes into the surrounding townships. Christiansen noted as the effort to reach the campus’ 2020 sustainability goals grown, so does the effort being done off campus.

The communities currently participating in the initiative’s programs include Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, and Washington; however, Christiansen said the number of applicants looking to benefit from the programs has significantly increased this year. The official number of accepted cities will be announced next month.

“What’s great about this is not only do we have a great sustainability here on campus, but we also have a strong effort to reach out and build strong communities in Iowa,” she said.

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