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Global Connection: Students Work Toward Creating a Sustainable Future

Honors Alumni Spotlight

Global Connection: Students Work Toward Creating a Sustainable Future

As scientists search for solutions to ensure the sustainable future of Planet Earth, students and faculty at NSU are rolling up their sleeves and engaging in research, collaborative events, and the global discussion surrounding sustainability.

During 2013’s Earth Week in April, students in NSU’s Natural History of South Florida course got their hands dirty uprooting and replacing nuisance exotic plants on NSU’s main campus with more than 100 native plants, shrubs, ground cover, and small trees.

Environmental science students spent 10 days camping at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, mapping soil samples that scientists hope will help unravel the mystery of a climate anomaly 1,000 years ago––and predict future changes.

A few biology students have been analyzing air quality data and samples in South Florida to examine the impact of cruise ship and other emissions on public health.

“The very nature of sustainability is multi-disciplinary. It requires collaboration,” said Song Gao, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU, who is helping to develop a new major in sustainability and who leads collaborative events such as Earth Week and NSU’s Climate-Sustainability Lecture Series.

The series, which is supported through the Faculty Fellows program, brings together expert speakers, faculty scholars, and students in an exchange of ideas and findings related to climate change and sustainable development. It also gives students a platform to connect with scientists and scholars from other institutions.

“It offers a broad perspective of the issues,” Gao said. “A lot of material in this series is a direct extension of what students are learning in the classroom. It connects chemistry, physics, biology, engineering and social science to real-world problems and solution finding. Research discovery is key for sustainability of the human species.”

Shannon Aldridge, a marine biology major and a member of NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program, participated in the college’s Earth Week events by planting native species of trees and shrubs outside the Parker Building. “The field of sustainability is keeping up to date on what can be sustained, and doing everything possible to keep the earth as healthy as we can,” Aldridge said.

Shoveling alongside the students was Paul Arena, Ph.D., assistant professor at NSU, who teaches the Natural History of South Florida course and led the replanting project. Arena also teaches Living Sustainability: An Examination of Our Daily Habits and Environmental Impacts, a first-year undergraduate seminar that offers an introduction to sustainability issues and helps students discover how they personally impact the environment.

“Replacing exotics with native plants contributes to sustainability,” Arena said. “Native plants require less water, less pesticide, and contribute to biodiversity, attracting wildlife such as butterflies, birds, and bees.” Students in his Natural History class conducted before-and-after wildlife surveys to measure how the native species changed the biodiversity and abundance of other species.

“The way we’re using resources right now is unsustainable. We are wasting our resources through practices such as over-fishing and polluting our air through emissions and greenhouse gases,” said Jay Petalio, an environmental science major, who took part in Earth Week. “Sustainability means living in a society with a vision for the future, keeping in mind that the next generation will be using the same resources.” 

Students from multiple disciplines are participating in research and activities inside and outside of classrooms that examine sustainability-related issues.

Biology majors Aarabhi Rajagopal (class of 2015) and Amal Ayoub (class of 2015) are conducting a research project that examines the impact of cruise ship and other emissions on the environment and public health in South Florida. Both students are members of NSU's Undergraduate Honors Program and the Dual Admission Program.

The students have been analyzing field and public domain data, such as the number of cruise ship dockings, car emissions, wind transport and the levels and types of pollutants found in the air. They presented their initial findings at NSU's Undergraduate Student Symposium in April 2013.

Working under Gao’s mentorship, Rajagopal and Ayoub hope to complete the project by April 2015.

“We plan to examine how all of this may affect public health in South Florida, especially with pollution-related diseases such as respiratory ailments,” Rajagopal said. “The research involves analyses of data from several sources such as government agencies, our own sampling, and scientific literature inter-comparison.”

Environmental science majors Shari Blaker and Jackea Gray spent 10 days this summer conducting field research at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Blaker and Gray mapped the areas where soil samples were being collected to help unlock the mystery surrounding the medieval climate anomaly, which occurred in the Northern Plains of the U.S. about a thousand years ago.

“Being out in the field and seeing firsthand how our planet has changed over millions of years is unbelievable. We hope the soil samples will tell us a more detailed story of what happened,” Blaker said.

Paul Baldauf, Ph.D., associate professor at NSU, who has done extensive research in the Badlands, is guiding the students’ research.

“Within the last 1,000 to 1,500 years, there was a period with warm, dry conditions and long spells of drought called the medieval climate anomaly. We think this period affected Badlands National Park,” Baldauf said. “We have spent years trying to understand the natural history. Climate changes were inherent in this. Something really dramatic happened here 1,000 years ago.”

Information gleaned from the dating of fossil soils and other data is useful to scientists making climate models to better predict future changes.

“We can start to unravel why these things happen,” Baldauf said. “There’s a community of scientists who are trying to come up with solutions and drawing on a multi-disciplinary field…as we confront climate change, deteriorating environmental quality, and sustainability issues.”  

In an Environmental Sociology class, students examine how their day-to-day choices––including what food they eat and the lifestyle they choose––leave an economic, social, or ecological imprint and affect sustainability.  

“We look at how society defines environmental problems and challenges,” said Eileen Smith-Cavros, M.F.A., Ph.D., an associate professor who teaches the course. “We look at how what society believes about these issues is equally important. Our society is not designed nor organized to make it easy to be sustainable.

“In class, we have this ‘aha’ moment. Students don’t realize the power they have. They come into the class not seeing how they are connected to sustainability. And I like to think that they leave trying to think about it.”

“Sustainability to me is a better and cleaner way of life,” Blaker said. “It is the future we should be striving to achieve. It means becoming less dependent on traditional forms of energy and recycling many of the products we throw away daily. It means creating living and working environments that lead to a cleaner and more self-sustaining life.”

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