- Austin College Thinking Green
- Sneed Prairie Restoration
- Austin College Weather Station
- Agricultural Land Use
- Bird Habitat Preferences
- Organogelators Spill Remediation
- Pollution from Foreign vs. Local businesses
- Solar Cell Dyes
- Suspended Sediments and Plankton
- Sustainable Land Management
Austin College Thinking Green serves as an umbrella for all campus greening initiatives, including our annual residence hall energy saving competition, our annual GreenServe event, student-initiated greening projects (more than two dozen of which have been adopted by the college), our involvement in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and all other efforts by staff, students, and faculty, and contractors to green the campus.
Students enrolled in ENVS 135 (Fundamentals of Environmental Studies) develop proposals to reduce the college's environmental impact. To be successful a proposal must clearly document the environmental and financial implications of the proposed change, discuss the proposal's various advantages and disadvantages, evaluate the consequences for the workloads of affected individuals, and describe the proposal in sufficient detail that the responsible college officer could make a decision whether or not to implement the proposal without the need to make further substantial analyses. College administrators have been very receptive to these suggestions.
Several proposals have been implemented, either exactly as proposed or after slight modification. These include:
- Battery recycling
- Blue book conservation
- Cardboard recycling
- Cell phone recycling
- Composting of food prep waste
- Double-sided copying & printing
- Dorm energy saving competition
- Efficient exit signs
- Efficient lawn watering
- Elimination of incandescent bulbs
- Light colored roofs
- Limited free printing
- Low flow showers
- Low VOC paint
- Metal recycling
- Modular carpet
- Mulched landscape waste
- Paper recycling
- Plastic recycling
- Printer cartridge recycling
- Reduced aluminum foil use
- Reduced mowing frequency
- Removal of excess light bulbs
- Reusable to go containers
- Sherman Community Garden
- Towel hooks
- Unbleached, ink-free napkins
Austin College is a signatory of the Second Nature Carbon Commitment. At least 15 Austin College courses address climate change issues. These courses have a collective annual enrollment of some 500 students, more than one third of our student population. In addition to curricular offerings we offer educational experiences through our service event, GreenServe, through dorm energy saving competitions, through an annual green pledge campaign, and through various other activities of Austin College Thinking Green, our campus sustainability initiative.
Austin College students and faculty are restoring tallgrass prairie to the college’s 100-acre Sneed Environmental Research Area, the former Sneed family farm. Sneed Prairie is a living laboratory of ecological learning and research. The prairie plays a key role in many science and environmental studies courses and serves as a field site for area schoolchildren. The children learn about Blackland Prairie ecology, local land use history, and conservation in general. During October of 2016, the program hosted its 10,000th schoolchild.
We manage ten fields with various combinations of fire, mowing, and carefully managed cattle grazing, comparing them against our nearby Garnett Prairie, the best local example of intact native prairie. We monitor restoration progress by measuring presence/absence of various native and nonnative grass species, trees, and soil cover at dozens of sampling locations in each field. Each measured variable passed a test for correspondence with expert assessment of prairie condition across six sites rank ordered in terms of biological integrity by Blackland Prairie expert Dr. George Diggs. Collectively, the measurements provide information on species composition and indicators of ecosystem functioning.
The restoration work has benefitted from the efforts of some 1,000 students, faculty, and staff, including participants in the January term course Prairie Restoration, students who have tracked the recovery of the prairie in the course Conservation and Restoration Ecology, students who have completed individual research projects, students who have studied various aspects of prairie ecology in other Austin College courses, and several hundred volunteer workers. Sneed Prairie is one of the main volunteer sites during the college’s annual Great Day of Service and GreenServe events, and the Alpha Delta Chi sorority has been doing service work at Sneed Prairie for nearly twenty years.
The first paper on the project was published in Ecological Indicators (2009, 9:445-454.) A report on the first 15 years of the restoration is in early stages of preparation.
Dr. David Baker and his students maintain and operate the Austin College Weather Station. The station records standard meteorological observations and surface variables such as soil moisture, soil temperature, solar radiation, infrared radiation, and soil heat flux. The latter measurements enable energy balance calculations. Typical weather stations do not collect these additional observations, making Austin College the only U.S. liberal arts college that records these important climate variables.
People and places are inextricably linked in social-ecological systems around the world. Dr. Mari Elise Ewing examines the influence of manmade and natural capital on the resilience and adaptive capacity of agricultural systems. She uses historical data, interviews, and agent-based modeling to understand how farmers’ and ranchers’ land use decisions respond to changes in circumstances. Dr. Ewing recently joined our faculty and looks forward to involving students in this research.
Dr. Wayne Meyer, his students, and colleagues study habitat requirements of breeding grassland birds. Their work directly informs habitat management decisions at a large nearby U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service uses their data to inform their management of Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge.
Dr. Andrew Carr and his students synthesize organogelators, organic compounds used to gel certain organic liquids. It is easier to recover spilled gels than liquids. Thus, gelators have potential for use in clean-up of oil spills and increasing the safety of transporting hazardous liquids. Carr & his students are streamlining the synthesis of gelators and studying how variations in formulations affect physical properties and critical concentrations, both of which are relevant for eventual use in remediation.
Dr. David Griffith studies patterns of pollution production from different sorts of businesses. His most recent work is forthcoming: “Are local businesses or multinational entities more environmentally sustainable? Some evidence from Asia, Chapter 2 of Emerging Dynamics of Sustainability in Multinational Enterprises, McIntyre, J.R. et al. (eds.), Edward Elgar. The study evaluates the “pollution haven” hypothesis (that developed nations use foreign investment to outsource emissions to less developed countries) and the alternative “pollution halo” hypothesis (that by sharing advanced technology across borders, foreign direct investment countries to produce less pollution at a given level of economic development). Griffith finds that in Asia at least, foreign investment is associated with lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions, while local business startups are associated with higher emissions.
Professors Brad Smucker and Stephanie Gould and their students synthesize dyes intended for converting captured light energy into electricity. Dye-sensitized solar cells may be less expensive than conventional solar cells because they rely on less expensive raw materials and convert electricity efficiently.
Dr. Peter Schulze and his students study the effect of suspended sediments on the zooplankton of large reservoirs such as Lake Texoma. Suspended sediments have potential to affect numerous ecosystem processes because they block light, interfere with foraging, and bind toxins. Some zooplankton persist in their presence, others do not. Results so far are published in the journal Freshwater Biology (2006, 51:1447-1457 & 2011, 56:352-365).
Dr. Daniel Nuckols, his students and colleagues in organic land stewardship, study holistic management strategies and techniques, as they pertain to agriculture. Nuckols is wrapping-up a 10 year study of Texas organic farming and ranching. He is Chairman of the Board for Holistic Management International, an organization that aids new and traditional/industrial farmers & ranchers transition into sustainable farm & ranch land management. Nuckols is also President of the Board of the newly formed non-profit, Council for Healthy Food Systems. He is active in the Texas Organic Farmer & Gardeners Association (TOFGA) and the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA). Nuckols most research publication is "Blue-Green Agricultural Revolution," chapter 14 of The Next Economics: Global Cases in Energy, Environment, and Climate Change. Springer Press, 2013.
The Illustrated Texas Floras Project produces taxonomic keys to plants of geographic regions of Texas. The floras include information of interest not only to botanical specialists, but also to a more general audience including students, wildflower enthusiasts, ranchers, environmental consultants, etc. Dr. George Diggs and his coauthors at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas have completed the first three volumes, some 3600 pages: Shinners & Mahler’s Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas, Illustrated Flora of East Texas, and The Ferns and Lycophytes of Texas.
Dr. Steven Goldsmith and his students study the ecology of native species at the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, on the slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. They focus on the ecological relationships of endemic longhorned wood-boring beetles (genus Plagithmysus), whose larvae feed on the stems of Koa, an endemic forest tree, and are the primary food of ‘akiapola’au, an endemic and endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper. ‘Akiapola’au feeds like a woodpecker by chiseling into the wood of Koa and extracting beetle larvae with an extraordinarily long, curved beak. ‘Akiapola’au (Hemignathus munroi) occurs only in montane wet forest on the Big Island; its population size is measured in the dozens of individuals (Southwestern Naturalist, 2007, 53:356-363 and 364-370.)
This project is on hiatus while Dr. Goldsmith serves as Dean of the Science Division.
Dr. David Baker, Associate Professor of Physics at Austin College, received a three-year grant from the NASA Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Program to investigate the impact of soil moisture and topography on extreme precipitation and flooding. The ultimate goals of this research were to understand the physical processes that influence extreme rainfall and to ensure that these processes were included in numerical weather models.
One specific flood event that was studied was the historic Missouri flash flood of 2000. On May 7, thunderstorms produced heavy rainfall in east-central Missouri with up to 14 inches of rain in less than 8 hours. The weather forecast for this day predicted less than 0.5 inch of rain. With colleagues at NASA
Goddard Space Center, Dr. Baker investigated atmospheric and land-surface conditions that helped produce these intense storms.
The above figure shows rainfall at 2:30 am local time (07:30 UTC) on May 7 measured by Doppler radar (left panel) and simulated rainfall with a sophisticated land-atmosphere computer model (right panel). This new computer simulation reproduced the observed rainfall quite well, in contrast with the original computer forecast for this day. The improved results can be largely attributed to strong interaction between land and atmosphere which was not accounted for in the original computer model.
In 2004, Austin College was awarded a grant from the NASA/USRA Earth System Science Education for the 21st Century Program. Initiated by Dr. David Baker (Physics), Austin College was one of only six institutions awarded funding that year.
The primary goals of this effort were to promote undergraduate Earth System Science Education at Austin College, and to increase awareness of Earth System and Global Change issues in the college and local communities.
Due to innovative learning approaches, this work may lead to significant contributions in Science Education Research. The interdisciplinary nature of this project built on strengths in atmospheric science, geophysics, ecology, soil science, science education and communications. Science literacy will be improved through application of science to real world problems. Science students will be better prepared for ESS careers, and public awareness of Earth System and Global Change issues will be enhanced.
Funding of this far-reaching project was a jump start to dynamic Earth System Science educational programs throughout campus. Specifically, this project:
- Introduced four new Earth System Science (ESS) courses and revised two current courses with increased ESS content. These courses serve both science and non-science majors.
- Developed ESS curricular materials using innovative, student-centered learning experiences. Activities and curricular modules incorporated NASA remote sensing observations.
- Funded the installation of a large HDTV screen in the lobby of Moody Science to display continuously Earth System observations, including those from NASA satellites.
- Sponsored an Earth System and Global Change public seminar series with prominent Earth System scientists.
- Offered a summer workshop for secondary school teachers to advance ESS education in local high schools.