Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Summit highlights sustainability efforts

Associate Professor of Theatre Erika Guay poses at the Cardinal Sustainability Summit with clothes that have been embroidered, sewn and knit on to give them new life.

By Aleksandra Sidorova

Students, faculty and off-campus guests gathered to learn about each other’s efforts toward sustainability at the first annual Cardinal Sustainability Summit Friday, April 21 — a day before Earth Day.

Programming spanned from 2 to 7:15 p.m., beginning and ending in the Cardinal Lounge at Angell College Center with presentations in the next-door Alumni Conference Room. The sustainability efforts presented included research by students and faculty alike, student clubs — the Environmental Club and Biketopia — and community initiatives, such as the Plattsburgh Climate Task Force, Climate Smart Communities and the monthly talk and game show Late Night for the Planet.

In his opening speech, College President Alexander Enyedi mentioned his profound academic interest in the environment prior to taking on administrative roles: From his bachelor’s to his postdoctoral studies, he studied environmental biology, plants and air pollution biology. The summit asserts the campus’ dedication to sustainability and provides a platform to learn about ways to “better preserve and protect the only planet we’ll ever have,” Enyedi said.

The first segment of the summit saw the most activity, with about 50 attendees not only seated at five round tables, but lined up around the lounge perimeter. Several students took the opportunity to showcase their work in sustainability with projects of varying complexities, but equal passion behind them.

Kaleb Pecoraro, an interdisciplinary junior studying theater and robotics, combined his two academic interests into a project about sustainability in the arts. Pecoraro made a 3D-printed robot with ogling blue orbs for eyes and a moving mouth. He will use the robot as a prop for “Talking Heads on the Television,” the play he wrote and is directing for the Climate Play Festival May 5. The materials the robot uses, including scraps, will be recycled into props for future productions.

Gabriel Thatcher showcased a project he worked on with three classmates as part of professor of environmental science Curt Gervich’s Environmental Management class.

The project aims to reduce food waste at Clinton Dining Hall, which the group suspects is due to its all-you-care-to-eat setup, by using smaller plates that would make it harder to load it up with excess food.

The next phase of the project will be measuring the food waste produced from larger and smaller plates to see how effective swapping the plates would be. Thatcher is a senior majoring in environmental studies. Although he might not see this project to the end, he said he hopes the next batch of students continue the work.

Thatcher also represented Late Night for the Planet. He said the show is so popular that there are sometimes more people attending than there are chairs to sit on. While usually held at Olive Ridley’s downtown, Late Night for the Planet was recently hosted at Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, New York.

Lucas Kemmerling, a first-semester graduate student, presented his research that examined the quality of a habitat — and the success of its restoration — by comparing the number of birds it could feed to how many birds actually live in the habitat. Bored by engineering work in a cubicle, Kemmerling took up odd jobs and found himself working in wildlife conservation and restoration. Intrigued by the science behind such work, he decided to pursue a master’s in ecology and natural resources at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Anne Randall, a non-matriculated graduate student, joined Associate Professor of Environmental Science Mary Alldred’s research project for an opportunity to get hands-on lab work related to her prior experience with forestry data analysis. The project examined how much phosphorus is in the leaves of the decorative Norway maple, not native to Plattsburgh. 

Randall and Alldred’s research project found that a single Norway maple tree’s leaves can produce 8 kilograms — about 17.6 pounds — of phosphorus. While phosphorus is a nutrient that helps tissues and cells grow and rebuild, it also promotes the growth of algae. In large amounts, blooming algae can kill aquatic plants and animals. 

Randall said the group might present the research to the City of Plattsburgh or across the lake in Burlington, Vermont with the suggestion of replacing the Norway maple with alternative decorative tree species or improving waste management so the leaves can be removed before the phosphorus leaches into the water.

Also showcasing student efforts was John McMahon, assistant professor of political science. Last semester, McMahon taught an honors seminar called Environmental Ethics. As part of the course, students were to undertake a creative project demonstrating what they learned. Some of the projects McMahon displayed included his students’ artwork, memes and a short film with an environmentally conscious spin on the classic  2000 horror film “American Psycho.”

Jayne Smith / Cardinal Points

John McMahon and one of his Environmental Ethics students, Cameron Greaves, show guests a student-produced film.

In the Alumni Conference Room, ‘20 alumnus Charlie Olsen presented a broad overview of environmental policies and debates surrounding them in Washington, D.C. Olsen is now a lobbyist, working for the National Parks Conservation Association as a climate policy manager.

After Olsen’s presentation, some faculty presented their research. Associate Professor of Economics and Finance Dhimitri Qirjo examined what effect the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union had on the 28 participating countries’ greenhouse gas emissions relating to import and export. Assistant Professor of Business Analytics Sabah Bushaj surveyed forests for trees infected with the emerald ash borer to determine the best course of action to save the most trees from the insect. Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies Liou Xie researched Plattsburgh’s housing market, identifying what impedes access to safe and affordable housing. Lastly, Associate Professor of Strategic Management Jeffrey Gauthier examined what techniques bottled water companies use to communicate the social, economic and environmental concerns of sustainability.

Additionally, Assistant Vice President of Facilities Operations Tyson Moulton, joined by energy engineer Jaimee Wilson on Zoom, presented on how SUNY Plattsburgh can move forward in compliance with New York state legislation and SUNY directives to build and remodel campus buildings to be carbon-neutral.

After the presentations, guests could enjoy a dinner of soup, potato salad and sandwiches, all sourced locally from Prays Farmers’ Market in West Plattsburgh. Usually, the college requires that all catering for events be done by its partner company Chartwells, but the planners managed to get an exception. 

The summit has been in the works for months, with the idea originating in the fall semester. To organizers, this summit stands out because it gathered people from various levels and fields of study and work with the common goal of sustainability — a topic gaining more and more traction in academic settings.

Conversations about sustainability have been appearing so frequently in McMahon’s courses that he will be teaching a new permanent course starting next semester — Environmental Political Thought. 

“I think this has happened in part because of my own teaching pursuits and because of directions in my subfield of political science, and in part because of student interest,” McMahon wrote in an email exchange following the summit. “And of course each new report on our unfolding climate crisis only amplifies the need for such discussions.”

In facilitating conversations on sustainability within the classroom, McMahon said it is “absolutely crucial” to have a mixture of students with environmentally focused majors and majors in other fields. 

“Responding to and taking responsibility for the climate crisis requires a comprehensive — and hopefully justice-oriented — effort, and it’s vital for people in all parts of the college to think carefully and seriously about it,” McMahon wrote in his email.

To see the summit in action, check out Cardinal Points’ video coverage on YouTube.

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