Students, faculty and administrators from the University of Maryland gathered in The City of Frederick Wednesday to share project results from the inaugural semester of the Partnership for Action Learning in Sustainability (PALS), a campus-wide program that connects University resources with Maryland communities. Attended by city officials and residents of Frederick, the presentation offered overviews of eight of the 14 courses completed last semester, directed to assist Frederick with some of their most pressing sustainability challenges.
“Wonderful stuff. Are your jaws on the floor ‘wowed’ by all of this?” asked Alderman Russell to the full Council Chambers. “Because I am.”
The students presented the audience a brief taste of the semester-long work developed during the fall, with projects ranging from redevelopment schemes to ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Dylan Reilly, a graduate student pursuing his Master of Landscape Architecture, presented recommendations for reducing algae in Carroll Creek, a persistent problem for the City; ideas ranged from testing algae turf scrubbers to floating treatment wetlands, a concept that has been used successfully in the Baltimore Harbor. A polished, five-minute video from broadcast journalism students Chloe Leshnew and Phil Staiman highlighted sustainability efforts by the City relating to food production. In all, students from the Architecture program, Urban Studies and Planning program, Landscape Architecture, Real Estate Development, Conservation Biology and School of Journalism shared their research, concepts and recommendations.
“It was great to see what everyone had done this semester,” said Betsy Nolen, a graduate student pursuing her Master in Architecture. “It was great to be able to interact with Frederick as well as other disciplines within the university. Everyone was happy to help and it was an important collaborative project.”
Launched last September with the support of Provost Mary Ann Rankin, PALS is a bold new way of leveraging student ingenuity and faculty expertise campus-wide, providing real solutions to sustainability issues facing Maryland communities. Working with one designated community each academic year, PALS pairs custom coursework with challenges that are defined by the partner community. Projects range from stormwater management to revitalizing a downtown block. Despite its freshman status, PALS is the second largest of 18 action-learning initiatives in the United States, with a roster of 30 courses and over 350 students from 10 disciplines across campus.
Prior to PALS, most university “community-engaged” coursework operated in a vacuum, often limited by the size of the class and length of the course. The aim of PALS is to funnel these efforts and provide a concentrated, well-orchestrated surge of novel ideas and approaches to the economic, social and environmental challenges for one community. The meaningful, on-the-ground community engagement not only provides a living case study for students, it offers a rewarding interactive experience that mirrors future professional interactions within their disciplines.
“This has truly been a win-win situation for us,” says Uri Avin, Director of the PALS program. “Frederick saw the value in what the University can offer and has dedicated the time and effort to help our students as they develop their projects. That kind of collaboration is what makes this program both effective and meaningful for all involved.”
In November, PALS administrators met with representatives from the other 17 action-learning programs in the U.S. to share stories and to develop the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC). During the next year, EPIC will network to organize the programs' efforts in order to showcase their impacts nationwide. PALS also launches an “in residence” mini-PALS program in College Park this month, which will be on-going as part of the university’s town-gown relationship.
In the meantime, work in Frederick continues. This semester brings a roster of 12 additional courses dedicated to the city, including a citywide composting program, a watershed recreation management plan, a development plan for East Frederick and enhancements to the city’s Sustainability Plan. Frederick City officials and students have already met to discuss project goals and conduct fieldwork.
“I’m so impressed with the level of work,” said Alderman O’Connor to the students and faculty. “If we can do ten percent, five percent, even one percent of what you brought forward, then this partnership has been worth it for the City of Frederick.”
“We are very pleased with the results of the first semester,” said Gerrit Knaap, Director of the National Center for Smart Growth. “This program has incredible potential, not just for the jurisdictions we serve, but for the way it can shape the future of education.”