Empowering the environmental advocates of tomorrow

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Empowering the environmental advocates of tomorrow

Students in the ASU environmental and resource management program are poised to tackle challenges in climate change, water and air quality, human population growth and waste management

Erin Shriner (right) adds water to soil to determine its composition with the help of Senior Lecturer Al Brown (left). Shriner is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in sustainability at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and minoring in environmental and resource management in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. Photographer: Sona Srinarayana/ASU

​Each fall, Al Brown, a senior lecturer in the environmental and resource management program, takes his ERM 201 Environmental Management students to the shady courtyard between Aravaipa Auditorium and Santan Hall on Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus to collect and test soil samples.

All of Brown’s courses integrate activities with real-world applications. He and other environmental and resource management faculty members believe hands-on learning best prepares students for professional roles that can rely heavily on the data collected from field work.

Through a hybrid classroom setting, the environmental and resource management program in The Polytechnic School, one of the seven schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, provides students with the expertise required to protect the health of engineered and natural ecosystems. Working in accord with sustainability initiatives, they seek to mitigate the environmental impacts of byproducts created by the operations of various industries.

Students gain critical scientific, engineering and management skills that they can apply in careers in nearly all industries. Graduates of the program are working in consulting firms, government agencies, manufacturing facilities, academia, non-profit organizations and many other related areas.

“The environmental and resource management program grew from industry needs to sustainably address and manage the adverse impacts that human activities have on the environment,” says Kiril Hristovski, program chair and associate professor in the environmental and resource management program and senior global futures scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory™ at ASU.

“It is a technical degree specifically tailored to prepare future environmental professionals for managing anthropogenic and natural environmental systems in accordance with existing laws, regulations, science and sound engineering principles,” Hristovski says.

Inspired by real-world lessons

Wrapped into the curricula are field trips sponsored by the Environmental and Resource Management Club to locations across Arizona, such as the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant near Tonopah, Arizona; the Theodore Roosevelt Dam Hydroelectric Plant in Roosevelt, Arizona; the Salt River Landfill on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Scottsdale, Arizona; the Abengoa Solar Thermal Power Plant in Gila Bend, Arizona; the Freeport-McMoran Inc. Inspiration Smelter and Copper Mine in Miami, Arizona; the Lucid Motors electric vehicle manufacturing factory in Casa Grande, Arizona; and areas throughout the Superstition Wilderness, as well as drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, net zero commercial buildings and more.

outdoor class taught by Al Brown

Al Brown, senior lecturer in the environmental and resource management program, gathers his students in the shady courtyard between Aravaipa Auditorium and Santan Hall at ASU’s Polytechnic campus for a soil sampling and testing demonstration. Photographer: Sona Srinarayana/ASU

In addition to engaging field trips, Brown and Olcay Unver, a professor of practice in the environmental and resource management program and senior global futures scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory™ at ASU, regularly invite 20 or more prominent environmental attorneys and leaders into their classrooms each semester to talk to students about industry experiences and prospective career paths.

Unver supplements textbook lessons with real-world examples, some of which he has experienced firsthand during his career.

Before coming to ASU, his professional experience included a variety of roles. His work in public service has spanned three decades. He was vice chair for United Nations Water and currently serves on the Water Policy Group. He’s also a senior water advisor for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“I believe my students enjoy the insights, anecdotes and personal experiences that I convey to them when I’m teaching topics of global, national and even local significance,” Unver says, “such as what it took in the background to have the Paris Accord breakthrough in climate negotiations, or how the Aral Sea disaster was known to the Soviet government and was deliberately neglected. And how the overdraft of groundwater in Arizona links to the global-scale water crisis.”

Environmental consultant for a semester

To bring additional real-world contexts to students, Brown has partnered with Project Cities, a Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation-affiliated program at ASU that connects university resources with local communities.

Project Cities has also worked with other Fulton Schools programs, such as Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, on several projects encompassing internet infrastructure, historic bridge preservation and recreation planning, among other hot-button topics.

Environmental and resource management projects have spanned solid waste management research for the city of Apache Junction, hazardous waste and chemical waste management research for the city of Glendale, and most recently electronic waste, or e-waste, solutions for the city of Peoria, among many others.

Last fall, students in Brown’s ERM 432/532 Sustainable Solid Waste Management course explored ways to divert e-waste from landfills into recycling programs and offered implementable solutions based on their findings. In a separate Project Cities initiative that ran in tandem with the e-waste project, environmental and resource management students produced a report on biogas generation from food and green wastes.

“Students have the opportunity to practice consultant-level work while they are still students at ASU,” Brown says. “In the workforce, if you don’t meet a client’s expectations, you could end up losing business. So, this provides plenty of opportunities for students to practice their ability to do environmental consulting.”

Students began the e-waste project by establishing roles and responsibilities and selecting team leaders. They met with City of Peoria leadership, took a tour of the waste management site and began background research. After gaining an understanding of the city’s needs, students contacted multiple cities, companies and waste management sites to brainstorm plausible solutions and gather cost estimates. Finally, the team drafted a report based on their findings and presented it to Project Cities.

According to the students’ report, “the rate of electronic waste recycling is expected to substantially increase over the next 50 years and demand for e-waste recycling options is increasing globally.”

Project co-leader Annie Grimshaw says, “Our report was accepted and we presented it to the city of Peoria. The most exciting thing was working with the staff of the city of Peoria and being able to solve a problem for them.”

Peoria’s Solid Waste Division implemented four of the students’ recommendations and says that their “main draw in partnering with this program is collaborating with a group of students and instructors with such a wealth of knowledge, innovation and research skills.”

Grimshaw has since graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the environmental and resource management program and is now a master’s student in the program, doing equally impactful work. She says she chose to pursue the degree because it combines STEM curriculum with environmental policy and regulations.

“My plans after graduation are to work in the corporate sustainability realm and this project has helped me because it has strengthened my communication skills. I am better at drafting emails, making calls and working with various customers, vendors and governmental agencies,” Grimshaw says. “I have been able to talk about my work on the Project Cities assignment throughout job interviews, which helps me stand out.”

Brown says that years later, when he sees his students at conferences or meetings, they’ll tell him that their Project Cities experience was the best thing about their studies in the environmental and resource management degree program.

Making a difference

Through experiential projects, hybrid classrooms and professional development opportunities, the environmental and resource management program is creating a path for students to generate environmental change at every level and in every industry.

“By training one environmental professional,” Hristovski says, “we are making a global contribution for the hundreds of generations to come.”

Project Cities is a member of the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC-N) and is administered by ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory™ and the Sustainable Cities Network. Stay up to date with Project Cities and the Sustainable Cities Network by following them on social media or subscribing to their newsletter.

About The Author

Sona Srinarayana

Sona Srinarayana joined the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering marketing and communications team in February 2020 and is based at The Polytechnic School. She brings with her, a decade of communications experience in various industries, including higher education. She earned her B.A. degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and is an Arizona native.

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