How URC is creating a sustainable tomorrow in learning spaces today

This article is part of a series focusing on and made possible by, the University Research Corridor.
Leaving the world better than how we found it is at the heart of sustainability innovation. At the University Research Corridor (URC), an alliance of Michigan’s three leading research institutions (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University), real-world sustainability education, research, and innovation is happening today for a greener tomorrow. Here are insights from three URC sustainability leaders on how their institutions are uniquely positioned to lead the development of sustainable solutions through innovation and testing and foster change through the education of tomorrow’s leaders. 

Wayne State University

Donna Kashian, professor of biological sciences and director of environmental sciences and the United Nation’s Regional Center of Expertise Detroit-Windsor (UNRCE) at Wayne State University (WSU), says the university submitted an application several years ago to be a part of this United Nations global program. Partnering with the University of Windsor, the UNRCE joint effort became recognized as a bi-national partnership, one of a few across the globe. The goal is to build on and expand related education and research initiatives in the universities and the cities of Detroit and Windsor, which share an international border. 

Photo: WSU

“WSU just launched our five-year sustainability plan last April, and it was developed a bit differently than traditional sustainability plans. In putting it together, we didn’t just work within our university,” Kashian says. 

“At Wayne State, working within our community is part of our mission,” Kashian says. “We partnered with groups like Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and other businesses in developing our plan.” The plan includes Internal and external components that advance sustainability goals across the international border, which is really unique, says Kashian. 

“It helps center sustainability within the two cities and the two regions,” she says. “That’s really important in an urban center where we’re having climatic impacts on Detroit, like flooding. [...] We have our water infrastructure system, which is vast but old, and it, in part, contributes to the flooding problems. By centering sustainability and the need to advance solutions, we hope to bring to the general public the awareness on how these things are all linked – sustainability and climate change.”

Wayne State University is also looking at how humans can lessen their exposure to toxins and pollutants, especially in industrial cities like Detroit. At The Center for Leadership in Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR), urban environmental health research is being done on mitigating adverse birth outcomes and developmental health problems associated with exposure to pollutants and volatile chemicals. The chemicals enter homes and buildings every day, but CLEAR provides assessments, testing and mitigation methods to help reduce the exposures and effects. 

“The Center is looking at many different aspects of it, and the science behind who’s being impacted,” Kashian says. “We have a community engagement team that actually goes into homes and measures things like lead and volatile organic carbons, trying to map them out. They try to determine where they are and who is impacted, so we can figure out how to mitigate them, control them, and identify the effects of these compounds.”

Michigan State University 

Photo: MSUWe spoke with Matt Daum, Ph.D., director and professor in the MSU School of Packaging and the College Agriculture and Natural Resources assistant dean of Corporate Relations and Strategy, about what groundbreaking work is taking place at the MSU School of Packaging. The first of its kind, and the largest in the U.S., the MSU School of Packaging has pioneered the industry of packaging.

“The whole discipline of packaging was invented here at MSU back in the 1950s, and it grew out of the forestry department. The roots we have are in natural resources,” he says. “We graduate about 40% of the packaging engineers that go into the industry in the U.S. each year. We’re graduating the people who are making the decisions that you see as a consumer. That’s one of the key reasons why it matters what we do because we’re shaping the thinking, the framework, strategizing, and knowledge in this packaging sustainability area to a large scale across the industry.”

Outside of the classroom, once international students graduate and return to their home countries, the lessons from the packaging industry curriculum then have a global impact. MSU teaches courses from a material-neutral perspective, says Daum. 

“The way we look at it is that there are always trade-offs,” he says. “Packaging serves a great function. It can protect your product. It can keep your food from spoiling. It allows for e-commerce, and for Christmas gifts to show up on your doorstep. It allows for COVID-19 vaccines and flu shots to be transported, protected, and then usable in the doctor’s office. We don’t teach from a simplistic material point of view. You have to look at the whole picture of what the function of the package is, what’s the benefit of the package, and the environmental trade-offs.”

Students compare the carbon footprints and fossil fuel usage of different material types and take into account the end-use of packaging and available recycling options. 

“We’ve had some breakthroughs recently that will hopefully make their way into scalable industrial solutions that will translate into a more environmentally friendly packaging for everyone,” Daum says. 

We also spoke with Sandra Lupien, director of MassTimber@MSU and interim director of the Forest Carbon and Climate Program. MassTimber@MSU leverages research, education, communications, outreach, policy and partnerships to move sustainable mass timber manufacturing forward. Unlike traditional building materials, mass timber presents a myriad of benefits for forests, climate, sustainability, economics and workforce development, says Lupien. 

The multidisciplinary team’s research efforts are wide-ranging across Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and beyond. 

“MSU Forestry Associate Professor Dr. Mojgan Nejad’s lab is creating biodegradable, sustainable adhesives and coatings for mass timber that have the potential to replace the fossil-fuel-based adhesives currently used,” she says. “Dr. Nejad’s products are made from lignin, a residue of wood and agricultural waste, so it is both renewable and less expensive than the alternatives.”

Early results from the project, funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, show that there is a demand in the region to support a successful mass timber manufacturing operation, according to Lupien.

This mass timber research is highly utilized in collaboration with industry, government and other stakeholders. Students of all levels are choosing MSU because of this discipline, which can make a global impact. Many companies within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry are seeking out entry-level employees with experience in mass timber. MSU is helping to create that pipeline of talent. 

“With a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a MassTimber@MSU-led team (Principal Investigator Dr. George Berghorn, Assistant Professor of Construction Management) is working with industry to develop mass timber curriculum modules that AEC educators at community colleges and universities across the U.S. can adopt to help prepare their architecture, engineering, construction management, and carpentry students for mass-timber-focused careers,” Lupien says. 

Photo: UofM

University of Michigan

We spoke with Liesl Eichler Clark, director of Climate Action Engagement at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Clark says U-M hopes to grow the ‘living labs’ component across the campus and into the larger community, which can take many shapes, ranging from deploying technology in parts of the university, to testing policies for academic programs.

“Living labs matter because they are one-way universities make research tangible and impactful for the average citizen,” Clark says. “As Michiganders, we invest our dollars in our academic universities. An outcome of that is the type of research and information that’s going to help all of us citizens and residents.”

Graduate students are involved in year-and-a-half initiatives chosen by private and public sector companies like automakers, chemical companies, and state government entities. 

“That has the ability to take a student's knowledge, combine it with experts in those fields, and then grow it into something even bigger,” she says. 

Another ‘living lab’ project is the SEAS Detroit Sustainability Clinic, working collaboratively with City of Detroit partners and focused on furthering the goals of nonprofits. 

The Global Center for Climate Change Impact on Transboundary Waters recently received a $5 million grant from the federal government to further its work. 

“We’re really excited about this initiative, which crosses the border between the U.S. and Canada,” Clark says. “We are the heart of 21% of the world’s freshwater and while we’re in the middle of it, it’s not exclusively Michigan’s water. It’s something that we manage with our stateside partners as well as our Canadian partners. This effort works on both sides of the national boundary and brings together nonprofit and government entities, along with the U-M research arm, to advance climate change challenges that threaten our freshwater system.”

The Center is also studying Great Lakes coastal erosion due to recent record-high water levels and the resulting impacts, such as loss of property. 

“This type of research helps us understand why that’s happening, what we can expect in the future, how we can predict it, and what types of policies are going to be necessary to best protect public and private property going forward,” Clark says. 

It’s not always easy to comprehend the real-world impact of the broad and sometimes very technical research happening at Michigan’s University Research Corridor institutions. But it’s clear that the work being done across these three universities directly impacts mankind and the greater good. The education, research and innovation taking place on campus and with industry partners is paving the way for a greener tomorrow.

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