By Ed Brennen
The university’s Sustainability Encouragement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund is supported by student fees and administered through a student-majority committee.
And this year, for the first time, the majority of applications for funding (nine out of 17) came from students.
Overall, 12 projects were approved for a share of this year’s $50,000 in S.E.E.D. Fund grants. Half of those projects are led by undergraduate students – the most in the program’s three-year history.
Winning proposals include a project to build roving vehicles that can measure moisture in campus lawns, a project to recycle scraps generated in plastics engineering labs, and a project to rid the campus of invasive plants and replace them with native vegetation to restore the ecosystem.
“Not only are students thinking of innovative ways to make the university more sustainable, but most of them are getting their first experience with grant-writing, which is important,” says Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony.
Each spring, the S.E.E.D. Fund provides up to $10,000 in grants to projects that advance the sustainability goals outlined in the university’s 2020 Strategic Plan.
“One of the highlights of Earth Month for me is awarding the S.E.E.D. Fund grants,” says Joanne Yestramski, senior vice chancellor for finance, operations and strategic planning. “This year, we have 12 exciting projects that will have a lasting impact on our campus sustainability programs.”
Freshman business administration major Chase Blackmun is one of nine students on the S.E.E.D. Fund committee this year. A defenseman on the UML hockey team, Blackmun was invited to join the committee by Environmental and Sustainability Waste Management Coordinator Pamela Beckvagni after he had contacted her about adding recycling bins to the team locker room.
“We go through a lot of chocolate milk bottles, and I wanted to make sure we were recycling everything that we could,” says Blackmun, who appreciates the student-centric mission of the S.E.E.D. Fund.
“It’s important to know that students are making an impact not only in submitting projects, but also on voting for which projects are funded,” he says. “It’s impressive to see students come up with such cool ideas that can make a big impact on the university community.”
Several of this year’s winning projects include collaborations with community partners, such as an improved bike path on East Campus that includes work with the city of Lowell.
“In addition to the excellent student engagement with faculty and staff, we have seen an uptick in participation from the university’s strategic partners such as the city of Lowell,” Yestramski says. “Having the city engaged so deeply with our students and staff on transportation improvements through a S.E.E.D. grant is indicative of all the great projects funded over the last three years.”
Here are the 12 projects that received funding for the 2019 fiscal year:
- Soil Moisture Mapping Rover: Two freshmen – mechanical engineering major Eric Viscione and math major Junaid Baig – received $700 to build a pair of small, autonomous roving vehicles that can measure moisture levels in lawns on campus. Using data collected from the rovers, the students will create a web page with a detailed map of moisture levels that can be used to improve irrigation efficiency at the university. If the prototype rovers are successful, the team envisions adding several more across campus.
- Single-use Plastics Diversion: Sophomore environmental geoscience major Erin McGuire submitted two S.E.E.D. Fund proposals, one for single-use straw diversion on campus and another for single-use bag reduction and diversion. She received $1,000 to help fund a broader single-use plastics diversion campaign. McGuire, who serves as student sustainability coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, proposes to host a “pledge event” at the start of the fall and spring semesters where students can sign an electronic pledge to not use single-use plastic bags or straws.
- Sustainable Signs for UMass Lowell Buildings: Meghan Halpin, a senior double-majoring in biology and psychology, received $5,000 to produce signs that will highlight the sustainable features of 10 buildings across campus. Halpin, who is secretary of the Student Society for Sustainability, says the goal of the signs is to increase awareness of the sustainable actions UML is taking and to educate students about the environmental issues facing the university community.
- Sustainable Plastics Recycling: Senior plastics engineering major Daniel Barbin received $3,700 to find a more sustainable path for recycling lab-generated plastic scraps that previously ended up in landfills. Capstone students will collect, sort and store materials generated in labs during the semester. The Plastics Engineering Department will then send the scraps to a repurposing facility. According to Barbin, around 80% of the material used in labs is a commodity material (such as polypropylene, polyethylene and polystyrene) that can be repurposed once it is recycled.
- Bay Circuit Trail Learning Experience: Sophomore economics major Akbar Abduljalil, president of the Student Society for Sustainability, received $500 to fund a student trip next fall along the Bay Circuit Trail, a 230-mile route that runs from Newburyport to Kingston, Mass. Joined by staff members from the university’s Outdoor Adventure Program, participants will hike, bike and camp along the trail, which passes through Lowell. The goal of the project is to help students become better connected with natural areas, wilderness safety and “Leave No Trace” camping practices.
- Invasive Species Extermination: Junior civil engineering major Shawn Nagle received $1,000 for a project to kill invasive plant species around campus and replace them with local plants to restore ecosystems. An assessment last year by the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Ecological Extension, which was funded by a S.E.E.D. Fund grant, identified three plant species as a priority for the university to treat: Oriental Bittersweet, Black Swallowwort and Japanese Knotweed. Nagle’s project hopes to bring students together with community groups like the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust.
- Hybrid Shuttle: In an effort to decrease CO2 emissions and improve the fuel efficiency of the university’s shuttles and buses, Transportation Services received $8,000 to put toward a product that will convert an existing shuttle into a hybrid vehicle. The $16,500 XL Hybrid system, which will be added to a shuttle this summer, is expected to increase the vehicle’s fuel range by 25%, reducing the vehicle’s carbon footprint on campus.
- Sustainability Best Practices: Workshop for Massachusetts Public Institutions of Higher Learning: Led by Madeline Snow, project manager at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, this project received $2,500 to create an interactive workshop at UMass Lowell to promote and support sustainable practices at state-funded colleges and universities across the commonwealth. The workshop, which will be held in the 2019-20 academic year, will be designed as a learning experience for UML students, staff and faculty involved in sustainability. It will also be an opportunity for cross-campus sharing of experiences, challenges and successes.
- Pawtucket Street East Bike Improvements: The university’s Parking and Transportation Master Plan calls for the creation of a continuous, shared-use bicycle/pedestrian path on Pawtucket Street between East and South campuses. This project, led by O’Mahony, received $10,000 for the first stage of improvements on East Campus. It will involve new lane striping between Aiken Street and the Northern Canal Bridge, which is currently being reconstructed. The path will connect to a new park that’s planned for the corner of Pawtucket Street and University Avenue.
- Battery Electric Mower Purchase: The Grounds Department received $8,000 to put toward the purchase of a “Mean Green Mower,” a commercial-grade battery-electric lawn mower. Submitted by Grounds Operations Manager Erik Shaw, the project is part of a strategic grounds maintenance initiative to eliminate as many gasoline-powered engines from campus as possible, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution and maintenance costs. The $25,000 mower, which mulches clippings back into the soil, is equipped with a solar canopy to assist with battery life.
- It Pays to Ride Your Bike!:Kevin Soleil, assistant director of outdoor and bicycle programs, received $5,000 to seed a new program that will incentivize students, faculty and staff to commute to campus by bicycle instead of car. The program will partially reimburse the cost of a participant’s UML parking pass if they complete 30 round-trip, weekday commutes by bicycle during a semester. Participants who successfully complete their 30 commutes and submit the required verification materials will be awarded a parking pass reimbursement ($125 for students, $75 for faculty and staff) at the beginning of the next semester.
- Medicine Wheel Herb Garden: Indigenous cultures used medicine wheels, traditionally made of stone, to record and teach medicinal and spiritual practices. This project, led by the Office of Sustainability’s Tyler Arrigo in conjunction with Mill City Grows, received $4,600 to build an educational medicine wheel herb garden on the Urban Agriculture Greenhouse site on East Campus. Arranged in quadrants with an elderberry tree of life at the center, the garden will provide organically grown herbs that can be used in the university’s dining halls and in the community to support Mill City Grows’ food justice efforts.