Students Propose Sustainable Solutions to Real-World Challenges

Students Propose Sustainable Solutions to Real-World Challenges

At Columbia University, graduate students put their education to real-world use before even leaving the classroom. As part of a workshop in applied earth systems management this spring, students in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program spent a semester working with clients such as the U.S. EPA and the United Nations World Food Programme to craft solutions to specific environmental policy needs and challenges.

One team of students, working on a project for the U.S. EPA Region 2, which serves New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and 7 tribal nations, produced a manual entitled "Act Locally: Implementing Sustainability in Local Governments.” The manual is a practical handbook for municipalities interested in incorporating sustainability into their town plans, and is based on a study of 30 local governments in the U.S.— 14 that have sustainability plans and 16 that do not. It will be posted on the EPA’s website and distributed to municipalities nationwide.

“This local government sustainability planning handbook that our workshop team created for U.S. EPA Region 2 is something that I'm very proud of,” says student team manager Kelsey Bennett, “and we truly hope it will be a useful tool for planners across the United States."

The spring workshop is part of the core curriculum for the 12-month Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). The course gives students the opportunity to discuss practical problems associated with conducting policy analysis in a real-world setting and learn how to frame problems and “cut them down to a manageable size,” says Steve Cohen, Director of the MPA-ESP program and the advisor for the student team that worked with the U.S. EPA.

“The workshop is not mainly about the substance of these projects—although it is substantive—but about the process of analysis,” Cohen told students mid-semester when they gathered to share their projects. “Our pedagogical objective is to learn how to take a policy problem that is thrown at us by our boss and get organized logistically, intellectually and methodologically to make progress toward a solution—so your goal today is to learn how the other groups have approached their project, compare it to your own and learn.”

This semester’s clients were the United Nations World Food Programme, the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association, Sustainable South Bronx and its Green-for-All Project, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. EPA.

Professor Kathleen Callahan, the outgoing EPA Deputy Regional Administrator of Region 2, advised the workshop team covering the UN World Food Programme’s work, addressing potential challenges of climate change in West Africa. Climate change has exacerbated the problems of rain-dependent agriculture through flooding, drought, pests, disease and environmental degradation. This could have implications for the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest food aid organization, which helps 88 million people in 78 countries each year. A team of Columbia students created strategies for incorporating climate change adaptation into WFP projects, by crafting a climate change assessment framework and matrix, and using it to identify opportunities for improvement and develop recommendations.

Professor Tanya Heikkila, a SIPA professor who was recently awarded a three-year grant by the National Science Foundation to study interstate river basin compacts in the Western United States, advised the team of students working with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association. The team evaluated opportunities and challenges for integrating the Ocean Observing System—which makes climate predictions, promotes maritime safety, minimizes public health risks, and supports ecological and resource management decision-making—into coastal zone management in the Mid-Atlantic. 

Professor Gail Suchman, lecturer at SIPA and Columbia Law School, and Senior Legal Advisor to the Urban Design Lab for Sustainable Development at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, advised the team of students working with Sustainable South Bronx to design a retrofit training program to promote energy conservation, provide employment, educate workers and encourage outside investment.

Professor Sara Tjossem, Lecturer and Associate Director of Curriculum for the MPA-ESP program, advised the team of students working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The Columbia team analyzed the potential of using biofuels to generate electricity in New Jersey by constructing models and assessing current policies.