Students, faculty to collaborate with city officials on sustainability efforts

College Park City Council approved funding to work with the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability

May 11, 2015

Students from this university will collaborate with faculty and government officials to improve the city’s sustainability efforts after the College Park City Council approved funding to work with the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability at its meeting yesterday.

Created by this university’s National Center for Smart Growth, PALS aims to use student learning to help local communities by providing governments with low-cost, innovative environmental consulting.

“What PALS does is mix local government issues with the use of students and faculty as consultants in an academic setting,” PALS Director Uri Avin said. “The program is all about networking.”

Though it was created in fall 2014, PALS has already developed a record of success, Avin said.

Participating students and faculty spent the past academic year in Frederick, where more than 20 courses and projects merged 50,000 student hours with faculty expertise and city officials’ specialized knowledge to meet needs from a shared-use path to a composting recovery.

“We’re in the second semester of finishing up and it’s been very successful,” Avin said. “There have been some excellent products, the city has found it useful, and students and faculty have found it useful.”

In College Park, the four approved classes include an architecture studio course focusing on redesigning the space formerly occupied by The Barking Dog, a greenhouse gas analysis of the city, a public art studio course and a study of the city’s waste management practices, which looks to establish a three-year zero-waste plan.

“PALS harnesses the experience of UMD faculty and energy of younger students to help Maryland communities,” District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir said. “It helps Maryland communities become more sustainable.”

The city is appropriating $15,000 for three of the four classes, but it will not sponsor the architecture course, which will instead be funded by the university, Avin said.

“We are doing our best to get everybody involved,” said Jose-Luis Izursa, the faculty research associate leading the zero-waste course. “We want this to be a grassroots project — to let them know that we are helping, that we are not going to put a plan without consulting them.”

Izursa’s course serves as the capstone project for four seniors, whose majors include environmental health and environmental science and technology.

“The university has made it such a big goal to be sustainable and College Park gets, not shunned, but pushed away,” said Rob Swam, a senior environmental science and technology major. “This gives us a good opportunity to get together and work towards a bigger goal of being sustainable.”

Each student is responsible for a different component of a plan that spans until 2040. Among the various aspects are sustainable education, municipal waste management and composting research.

“I work with those handling municipal solid waste to suggest ways they can work through their current waste processes to make them more efficient,” said Ann Michelle Bolabo, a senior environmental science and technology major. “Lately we’ve been researching to see what’s available and going to forums to see what people want.”

Not only have the four students been collaborating with city officials, but the Student Government Association, the university’s Office of Community Outreach and local charter school College Park Academy have been as well.

“They’re our host city, but there’s not a huge amount of interaction of this kind being directed at the city’s needs,” Avin said. “This exchange where the city benefits from the capacity of the university hasn’t happened naturally.”

PALS is the second largest of 18 such initiatives nationwide, with more than 350 students from 10 different fields of interest.

“It’s a new wave, if you will, in community-university relations,” Avin said. “It’s fantastic to be able to help communities and help students at the same time.”