Building on a Successful Pilot Semester

September 19, 2016 / By: Elise Amel and Maria Dahmus

SCP has been essential in showing how our education ties in with the St. Thomas mission. This project has allowed us to analyze real-world data, collaborate with classmates, and present solutions to problems that affect real communities. We are applying skills we have cultivated in the classroom to projects that advance the common good. —Anna Kate Nolan, ECON 401 student

The Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP), a St. Thomas strategic initiative housed in the GALE Office of Sustainability Initiatives (OSI), was launched during the 2015-2016 academic year. Collaborating with our pilot partners, the City of Delano, the City of Elk River, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO), SCP linked 14 partner-identified sustainability projects to 170 St. Thomas students in 12 courses across 10 disciplines/programs. Students worked with and presented to a variety of governmental stakeholders including a mayor, a city administrator, city commissioners, city technicians, a city council, a fire chief, outreach specialists, and executive directors.  Check out our project films and project blog to learn more about these projects!

How does SCP work? 

We develop partnerships with cities and government entities to collaborate on project development that fosters systems-level change towards sustainability in the Twin Cities area.  We collaborate with faculty to link existing St. Thomas courses across disciplines to these sustainability projects, advancing the common good by engaging students in real-world application of course content.  We provide curricular and logistical support to integrate these experiential and applied projects into courses.

The responses of students, faculty, and municipalities to SCP’s pilot Spring semester have been overwhelmingly positive. Students report that they improved their teamwork, communication skills, ability to overcome obstacles, and ability to identify and solve problems, and they obtained practice presenting ideas and solutions to real, community stakeholders.  Faculty, despite the heavier workload this kind of engagement requires, plan to continue integrating SCP projects into their courses. Governmental stakeholders have found students to be engaged and professional, and they appreciate how the program has extended their capacity to move municipal projects forward.

It’s easy for a community to determine what it wants it[s] future to be but it is difficult to achieve every step. A lack of staff time and budget constraints tend to slow down the process. Elk River was excited to partner with the University of St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership because classes have helped achieve some initiatives that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish ourselves for years, if ever. Not only does the city gain valuable data and practical applications, but we also get to aid the next generation of university students in gaining real-world expertise. It’s a win-win and we couldn’t be more honored for the opportunity. —Kristin Mroz, City of Elk River Environmental Technician

During the short time that the SCP program has been up and running, many ancillary collaborative opportunities have also emerged with a variety of internal partners including student clubs and diverse university units and programs. We’ve also been approached by external entities, such as a sustainable coffee distributor, who see opportunities to integrate their work with our university-wide curricular sustainability programming. Finally, we are disseminating what we’ve learned to other municipalities and universities. We are developing toolkits based on projects findings that other municipalities facing similar challenges or aspiring to similar sustainability goals can use. And, as we are currently the only Catholic university engaged at the national level with this kind of sustainability-focused engagement, we hope to foster the adoption of this model at other Catholic institutions.

We are looking forward to building on our spring semester this fall!  We will continue our partnerships with the City of Elk River, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, and we welcome two new partners, the Master Water Stewards program, and Tiny Footprint Coffee.  For the fall, we have linked 11 partner-identified sustainability projects to an estimated 275 students in 11 courses across 9 disciplines/programs. Learn more about our Fall projects here.

By the end of the fall semester, we will have collaborated with 16 disciplines/programs at St Thomas:  Biology, Communication and Journalism, Computer Science, Economics, undergraduate and graduate English, Engineering, Engineering Education and Teacher Education, Environmental Science, Geography, History, Modern and Classical Languages, Public Policy, Psychology, Social Work, and Theology.  Every discipline offers a unique perspective to understanding and a unique contribution to solving our emerging sustainability issues. We are so thankful and appreciative of faculty for collaborating with us!

This year, we are also collaborating with the German Program and the City of Elk River’s partnership in Climate-Smart Municipalities to bring some exciting events to campus.  Climate-Smart Municipalities links cities in Minnesota with cities in Germany “to accelerate progress toward a cleaner and more efficient energy footprint.” The City of Elk River was one of five Minnesotan cities selected for this initiative.  Stay tuned for upcoming events! 

For students, this year we will also host career panels with our partners and career workshops to provide resources and guidance to students to leverage their SCP experience on their resumes and in job interviews.  We have already heard from students in Spring ’16 courses that their SCP experience has helped them get jobs!    

Finally, please join us for our Sustainable Communities Partnership Fall Kickoff on Wednesday, September 14 from 7-8pm in JRC 126.  Our partners will introduce themselves and our fall projects, and we’ll have the first-ever screening of our short SCP project documentaries!  Popcorn and beverages provided!

If you’d like to learn more about the Sustainable Communities Partnership or integrate a project into one of your courses, please contact Dr. Maria Dahmus, medahmus@stthomas.edu.