UConn received a $2.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand and study a new public engagement program that combines teaching, service learning, and Extension outreach. The program is called the Environment Corps and focuses on using STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills to address important environmental issues like climate adaptation, brownfields remediation, and stormwater management at the municipal level.
Environment Corps combines the familiar elements of classroom instruction, service learning and UConn Extension’s work with communities in a unique way that allows students to develop STEM skills and get “real world” experience as preparation for the work force, while communities receive help in responding to environmental mandates that they often lack the resources to address on their own.
The Environment Corps project is built on an extensive partnership at UConn. It includes faculty from four schools and colleges in five departments: Natural Resources and the Environment, Extension, Geography, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Educational Curriculum and Instruction. In addition, the project involves four university centers, all three environmental major programs, and the Office of the Provost. Learn more about the Environment Corps at clear.uconn.edu.
The shoreline community of Westbrook, Connecticut, situated halfway between New Haven and New London, is home to approximately 7,000 residents while supporting seasonal tourists with numerous beaches and shopping stores in the town’s outlet. It is also the municipality I was assigned to research and create a vulnerability assessment for during my time at the UConn Extension Office Internship in partnership with the Climate Adaption Academy and Climate Corps. Through the internship I achieved the Extension Office’s mission of using scientific research to engage with members of the public and municipalities, breaking down complex problems and developing easy to understand solutions that may help inform policy in the future.
Using the town’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan and various mapping services, I compiled a list of assets that I determined to have some level of vulnerability to climate hazards (such as flooding, sea level rise, damage from high precipitation events) primarily based on their geographical location to bodies of water. Although this information was similar to that described in the town’s plan, my created final product takes the basic material and provides recommended actions to reduce vulnerability, thus going one step further. With my help and the aid of future interns, the municipality can prepare for the impacts already being seen from climate change while simultaneously saving money. Figuring out the best way to protect assets and people within communities, whether proposing solutions on a town wide or specific infrastructure basis (an approach this internship takes with the Climate Corps Information Sheet), is an important discussion to have and comparison to make. Creating the vulnerability assessment was a rewarding process and the completed 38-page document (including references and figures) is something that I am proud to show to anyone willing to learn about the risk-based evaluations. I hope that the work done in this internship will grow into a much more substantial program and help Connecticut become a leader in climate adaptation.
Additional internship responsibilities included website updating and offering recommendations for a role-playing exercise that will occur in a new Climate Corps related class during the upcoming semester. These activities helped me reflect on past, similar experiences so that I could make any changes to proposed material to avoid previous problems I had encountered. Finding links to put on the Adapt CT website (through UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research) helped bring out my creative side and allowed me to delve into topics that really interest me.
Although attending meetings (except with the Westbrook town planner) and conducting a field site visit were not a part of my official obligations, seeing people and infrastructure in person really tied everything in the internship together. By seeing the people, along with their properties and other assets, that will be most negatively impacted by climate change in the future, my work felt much more important knowing what I did this summer may have a positive influence in time. Talking to members of shoreline communities from various backgrounds also made me realize that the climate will leave people of all classes vulnerable to events such as sea level rise, storm surge, flooding and tropical storms/hurricanes. Overall, this was more than just a summer job, rather a learning experience teaching me the ins and outs of local government, how input from the public affects an administration’s policies and the importance of maintaining natural landscapes within man-made ones.
Extension faculty is leading a collaborative new program focused on the impact of climate change on Connecticut communities. The UConn Climate Corps will bring together undergraduates enrolled in the environmental majors with town officials, to the benefit of both groups. The program is supported for three years by a competitive grant from the UConn Provost’s Office, in support of the Academic Plan goals of Excellence in Undergraduate Education and Public Engagement.
Students at the University are increasingly interested in the topic of climate change, which many feel is the environmental issue of our time. At the same time, many communities across Connecticut are struggling with how to adapt to climate change, and how to marshal the resources needed to do so. To address these complementary needs, Extension faculty associated with the Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) have developed the Climate Corps, a new multi-departmental collaboration at UConn that will combine classroom instruction and service learning to create a unique assistance program for Connecticut communities. Students in the Environmental Studies, Environmental Science, and Environmental Engineering majors will be recruited for the program, which consists of a class during the fall semester and in-the-field work with town officials during the following spring semester.
The class, Climate Resilience and Adaptation: Municipal Policy and Planning, will first be offered in the fall semester of 2017-2018 academic year and will focus on local, practical issues and impacts arising from climate change. Extension’s Juliana Barrett will lead the course but will be team-taught by Climate Corps team members and outside experts. “This course is not so much about the physical science of climate change as it is about local policy responses,” says Barrett. “In order for the students to really understand how climate change can affect local policies and operations, they have to have a firm grasp on how decisions are made at the town level, so there will be a focus on local decision making and on the federal and state legal frameworks in which towns operate.”
Students who complete the fall course are then eligible for the spring practicum course, led by Extension’s Bruce Hyde. The practicum builds upon the ongoing work of Hyde and Barrett, who form the CLEAR/Sea Grant climate team and have been working with towns for several years, including organizing a series of workshops called the Climate Adaptation Academy (see tools and training at right). Students will break up into teams of 3 or 4, each working with Hyde and other Extension faculty to engage selected towns on climate adaptation needs. Towns will have to apply to be included in the program, and several towns have already expressed interest before the application form has been issued. After meeting with town officials the students will embark on one or more projects designed to support the town’s adaptations efforts. These projects could include vulnerability assessments, evaluation of adaptation options, outreach strategies and products for educating the citizens, or other options.
A land use planner with over 30 years of experience working at the municipal level, Hyde is in tune with the world of local government. “Most towns understand that planning for climate adaptation is critical, yet many are unable to find the resources to begin the process,” says Hyde. “Our experience with our Extension undergraduate interns over the past several years has taught us that these students can do very high quality, sophisticated work, and we want to harness that work to the benefit of the towns. And at the same time, it provides a great ‘real world’ service learning experience for the students.” He notes that through their undergraduate training and simply by the technology-friendly nature of their generation, the students have the capacity to perform research, mapping and other tasks that are beyond the reach of busy local planners.
The Climate Corps is a unique multi-department collaboration between CLEAR, Connecticut Sea Grant, and the three Environmental majors, which in turn involve the departments of Geography, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Natural Resources and the Environment. The project team, which includes the Directors of all of these programs in addition to Barrett and Hyde, feels strongly that the Corps can become a model program that eventually can be expanded in scope, expanded in topical focus, and perhaps adapted by other universities and other states. Class starts in September!
The White House recognized UConn Extension educator Jiff Martin as a Champion of Change for Sustainable and Climate Smart Agriculture in October. The program features individuals who are doing extraordinary things to inspire and empower members of their communities, Martin was one of 12 individuals from across the country selected for this honor.
Jiff reflected on her role in sustainable and climate smart agriculture:
“When I came to Connecticut 13 years ago, I advocated on behalf of environmental leaders and farmers in Connecticut whose common cause was the preservation of working farmland. This coalition, Working Lands Alliance, taught me the vital link between our quality of life and the land that sustains us.
Now I work with Cooperative Extension, connecting people to the farmland, farmers and flavors of local food. I am just one of so many champions for change in our food system. Through our new farmer trainings, I have met bright, new farmers that are driven to feed their communities while sharing the realities of small-scale farming. I respect our partner organizations that use innovative food projects to improve their communities’ health and equity. And I am full of hope, thanks to the young emerging leaders that I meet through our AmeriCorps programs, FoodCorps CT, and Connecticut Food Justice VISTA Project.
In New England we have the capacity to produce and consume more of our own food through locally owned farming, fishing, and food enterprises. I see hundreds of endeavors across the region, from school gardens to incubator farms to food hubs to mobile markets. Without a doubt, our food system transformation is well underway.”
Jiff Martin is an Associate Extension Educator in Sustainable Food Systems, at University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.