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ASU research sets stage for ‘green’ growth in Arizona

September 29, 2008

Arizona State University’s environmental research and public outreach efforts have led to a host of benefits for Arizona through the years. In key areas that include renewable energy, riparian ecosystems, urban ecology and community policymaking, the university has impacted the state’s sustainable landscape as well as contributed to the development of a unique educational opportunity for training sustainability professionals.

“Long rooted in the culture of ASU is the idea of working in interdisciplinary teams to make the world a better place,” says Jonathan Fink, the Julie Ann Wrigley Director of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability. “Through our research, education and outreach to the community our goal is to improve the lives of future generations.”

Solarizing our energy supply

Arizona’s favorable climate set the stage for ASU to develop strong solar energy research, development and education programs over the years starting in the mid-1950s. The school served as an early headquarters for the most prestigious solar energy organization of the time, the Association for Applied Solar Energy (now the International Solar Energy Society), and this involvement helped attract professors and researchers to ASU who would go on to win major research grants, develop innovative solar energy systems, and then demonstrate their ideas in novel solar buildings and devices that still influence solar designs today.

As an outgrowth of ASU research, several demonstration projects were built in Arizona, including the ASU Solar Research House, which opened in 1981 and helped train a generation of solar professionals, and the APS Environmental Showcase Home, which opened in the 1990s and demonstrated sustainable design ideas to tens of thousands of visitors over the last 15 plus years.

In the early 1990s, the university’s solar expertise helped attract funding to establish the Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, at the time the only such testing lab in the country and one of only three in the world.

In addition to its R&D program, which includes fuel cell development, the lab provides certification testing of photovoltaic technologies for companies and research centers in Arizona and around the world. The lab also donates tested PV modules to the community – primarily to schools – and for other charitable purposes. More recently, ASU hired two top solar researchers and an industry innovator to establish ASU’s Solar Power Laboratory, for which the main focus is to foster economic development for Arizona by advancing clean, sustainable solar energy technologies that can be used throughout Arizona and the Southwest.

Treating water like gold

ASU scientists have long worked to protect and rehabilitate priceless riparian habitats by understanding their dynamics and needs. In the early 1970s, researchers with ASU’s Center for Environmental Studies (a precursor of the Global Institute of Sustainability) and their students began long-term studies of the Colorado River in Arizona, its tributaries, and its associated native fish, birds and other animals. One impact of this work has been the experimental releases of simulated floodwaters into the Grand Canyon as an attempt to rebuild a declining habitat.

ASU researchers and students also founded the Arizona Riparian Council in 1986 to facilitate the exchange of information about riparian management among scientists and public agencies in the state. This organization was one of the groups instrumental in convincing APS to decommission its dam on Fossil Creek and return natural flows to the creek.

Understanding the ecology of our city

In 1997 ASU was named as one of only two institutions to win a grant to study the ecology of its urban environment. The resulting Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research project (CAP LTER) is still going strong, not only producing a rich body of data and perspectives on how humans affect and interact with their environments – a critical need as the planet rapidly urbanizes – but also training hundreds of students in interdisciplinary research methods related to urban ecology involving 11 schools and departments at ASU and more than 150 graduate students.

The project’s outreach arm, Ecology Explorers, has worked with more than 140 school teachers across the Valley in 25 school districts, four charter schools and two private schools, most of which serve large percentages of low-income and minority children.

Making great policies

One of the most recent tools developed to enhance policymaking and to create a more sustainable future in Arizona is the Decision Theater at ASU. Tackling complex issues such as urban growth, education, public health and the environment, the Decision Theater’s approach to great decisions involves a collaborative process, the best science available and interactive visualization through modeling and simulation. Three different examples illustrate its work with local communities.

• Education: Scottsdale Unified School District needed to forecast student enrollment through the year 2030. Decision Theater created a way to display and analyze data with predictive modeling and geospatial visualization to show likely outcomes from different scenarios.

• Disease control: To improve possible reactions to a pandemic flu outbreak, Decision Theater provided a realistic visualization to health officials using scenarios created through simulated television news stories, demographic data panels and escalating threat levels. This gave participants a means to test different management protocols, see their impacts and make corrections to address previously unseen gaps.

• Water: As part of a long-term project for the East Valley Water Forum, Decision Theater built a 3D water modeling tool that helps public and private agencies develop and manage a sustainable water supply. The modeling tool allows participants to compare their goals with the impacts of their actions and policy decisions, thereby letting policymakers take a virtual look to choose actions that best lead to a sustainable water supply.

Educating for sustainability

To educate the next generation of leaders for Arizona and the world, ASU opened the School of Sustainability in 2007. It is the first in the nation to offer graduate and undergraduate degrees in sustainability.

The school brings together multiple disciplines and leaders to train a new generation of scholars and practitioners on how to develop practical solutions for the most pressing environmental, economic and social challenges that are part of sustainability. As of September 2008, the school has accepted 55 graduate students and 185 undergraduates, and is providing classes for 145 business majors seeking a concentration in sustainability.

Rick Heffernon,
Global Institute of Sustainability