GMU Senior Studying Negative Effects of Road Salt on Rivers and Streams

By Mariam Aburdeineh, George Mason University

Road salt has been touted as a lifesaver when it comes to driving on icy roads. But using this snow-melting mineral has a dark side once it enters waterways.

At Sullivan Foundation partner school George Mason University, graduating senior Maggie Walker, through the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC), is gathering data at local streams to influence change and find ways to protect rivers and streams.

“When excessive road salts get into streams, they can have devastating effects on the ecosystems in the streams,” said Julia Sargent, director of programs at Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. “The salts impact vegetation and very small river life, and that in turn can have effects on larger life, like fish. And in high concentrations, those salts may not be filtered out by our water treatment plants.”

Related: George Mason University senior Clare Yordy works with children impacted by cancer

Chloride pollution, which mainly comes from road salt, can also lead to corrosion, changed soil compositions, fish die-offs, algae blooms, and more, said Walker, who is partnering with Sargent’s organization for her SMSC practicum. “For people that need to be on low-salt diets, they can actually exceed their daily salt requirement just from their drinking water, so that can end up being a health concern.”

Walker, an Honors College student studying biology, selected four streams near urban land cover, including sidewalks, parking lots and cities, that are likely to be vulnerable to chloride pollution. For five weeks this semester, she has been heading to those streams to record the water temperature and collecting samples of stream water to measure chloride levels.

Maggie Walker use a QuanTab strip to measure chloride levels in waterways. (Photo by Evan Cantwell/George Mason University)

“It’s important that we establish what are the baseline levels of chloride in our waterways,” Walker said. “That way we can test it throughout the years, throughout the seasons, see when levels fluctuate, when they’re highest, and how road salting events impact the water quality.”

There’s also a community aspect to the project that Sargent said Walker helped inspire.

“I’m creating a survey about people’s attitudes and behaviors toward road salt and road salt usage,” said Walker, which aligns with her interest in the intersection of conservation, human well-being, and community involvement. “We’re hoping to disseminate it to people who live in the North Fork … and then ultimately, using the data, determine one behavior to target for change.”

Though actually changing behavior and reducing road salt usage are outside the scope of the project, Walker said the research is an important first step.

Related: Clemson professor develops hydrogen-dispensing hose that repairs its own cracks

Walker, who is originally from Lancaster, Penn., said she chose GMU because she wanted to attend a school with excellent research opportunities, like the SMSC. “Getting to hear from and work with so many different conservation professionals is really inspiring,” Walker said, adding that they actively engage with students.

“It’s been inspiring to get to know and work with these young people who are just getting their start along their career paths in conservation,” Sargent said. “Seeing their passions and being a part of that process is a big honor.”

SMSC is not an opportunity to pass up, Walker said. “If you are even remotely interested in conservation, you should definitely make every effort you can to come out and enjoy SMSC. It really sets you up for success in conservation [by] introducing you to all the opportunities and allows you to explore things while you’re still in college.”

“If you’re a conservation-minded person, this is definitely the place to be.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the George Mason University website.

Clemson Professor Develops Hydrogen-Dispensing Hose That Repairs Its Own Cracks

Dr. Marek Urban, a materials scientist, and his research group at Clemson University, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, have developed a self-repairing hose to dispense hydrogen as part of an effort to diversify the country’s fuel supply in the face of increasingly dire warnings about climate change.

Hoses that are used to pump hydrogen must withstand high pressure and are prone to cracking when exposed to high and low temperatures and the normal wear and tear of everyday use. The hose’s inner layer is critical, because that is where the damage occurs, Urban said.

The hose’s inner layer is made out of a self-healable copolymer matrix with Innegra fibers—a composite that heals itself like skin when it cracks.

Related: The Citadel amps up STEM outreach with engineering event for Girl Scouts

A more durable hose for pumping hydrogen could help lower the cost of sustainable fuel for buses, trucks and heavy equipment. The only byproducts from vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are heat and water, with no greenhouse gas emissions.

Urban has been developing self-healing materials for more than 20 years. He has considered applications ranging from paint that repairs its own scratches to military vehicles that patch their own bullet holes and self-repairable pet toys. He discovered the hose project while searching for additional uses.

Dr. Urban looks down the middle of a sample of his team’s self-repairing hose.

“The idea came from the need for this type of application and combining our technology at Clemson with something society needs,” said Urban, Clemson’s J.E. Sirrine Foundation Endowed Chair in Advanced Polymer Fiber-Based Materials.

Urban is now conducting his research with financial backing from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

He and his team have used a tabletop robot to repeatedly bend the hose they have developed. Urban said they have shown the hose can withstand up to 10,000 damage-repair cycles under temperatures as high as 70° Celsius and as low as -40° Celsius.

Related: Shayla Roberts-Long: Using your power to create accountability for climate change

The most recent version of the hose is undergoing additional testing at Sandia National Laboratories, Savannah River National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Urban said. He expects the hose to prove it can stand up to 25,000 cycles by the end of the year.

Hydrogen dispenser hoses now in use tend to develop cracks after 1,000 cycles.

The next step will be to work with a manufacturer to make the new hose at a larger scale.

Urban has previously received funding for self-repairing materials from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. He has published his research findings in leading journals, including Science and Nature.

“Dr. Urban’s research into hydrogen hoses is a testament to his leadership in the field of materials science and engineering and serves as an excellent example of how basic research leads to real-world application,” said Kyle Brinkman, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“This work not only has the potential to lead to a more sustainable fuel supply but also helps inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Brinkman added.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Clemson University website.

Shayla Roberts-Long: Using Your Power to Create Accountability for Climate Change

For students at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., community service isn’t exactly performed on a volunteer basis. It’s built into the school’s Christian mission. Fortunately, Shayla Roberts-Long, soon to be a sophomore at Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College and a recent Ignite Retreat attendee, needed little coercion. She took to it like an eagle takes to flying.

She was right in her element.

As high schoolers, Roberts-Long and her friend, Katelyn Johnston, spent hours picking up trash in their neighborhoods, but there was always more to be done. They soon brought in other students to help and founded Clean4Change, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and taking action on climate change. As they look to grow Clean4Change, Roberts-Long brought the concept to the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat, held April 1-3 in Staunton, Va., and won 3rd place in the event’s pitch competition.

Related: Ignite Retreat’s Hebron Mekuria develops business plan to bring children’s books to her native Ethiopia

Majoring in Peace and Social Justice Studies at Berea, Roberts-Long has big plans for Clean4Change. Meanwhile, she and Johnston hope to inspire other young changemakers across Kentucky—and the entire U.S.—with a Virtual Town Hall meeting taking place at 8 p.m. (ET), April 25. Here, she tells us more about her own roots as a changemaker, Clean4Change’s origin story, and how she hopes to see it grow into a larger movement in the future.

Q: Can you tell us more about Clean4Change? How did it get started and why?

Roberts-Long: I started Clean4Change with my co-founder Katelyn Johnston [a soon-to-be sophomore at Western Kentucky University]. We started this group out of inspiration from the organization Lead4Change. We started working on Clean4Change in the second semester of our junior year at Assumption High School, and then we launched our group a year later, in our senior year [during COVID]. Katelyn was one of the only people I saw outside of my immediate family and vice versa. We lived very close to each other and before we started Clean4Change, we were picking up trash together in our neighborhoods. We always had fun together and were successful, but we realized that we would spend hours picking up trash, disinfecting, and sorting through it to recycle what we had gathered. We needed more people to really clean up our community, and thus, Clean4Change was born. Since then, we have found funding, are an official nonprofit, and gather more members along the way.

Q: Clearly you are passionate about the environment? How did this passion develop in your life?

Roberts-Long: I would credit my love for the Earth to my high school and the teachers I had in school. I was raised in a family that cares about the Earth, but it wasn’t talked about. My extended family owns a farm in Kentucky, and we all take pride in it, but I never remember having discussions about being stewards of the Earth—partly because for a number of years I lived in Orange, Texas. My high school really blossomed a love of service to the Earth and to people on the Earth.

Assumption required every student to have a certain number of service hours, so in a way, I was at first forced to help my community, but then I found the deep value in doing service work of all kinds. I volunteered whenever I was able, was incredibly active in my school, and in my senior year, formed Clean4Change, with Katelyn by my side. In my junior year, I was chosen to be a Fair Trade Ambassador with Just Creations, a fair trade store in Louisville, and that blossomed my love for fair trade and for equitable jobs and living wages for all people.

Related: Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat breaks record with largest-ever group of changemakers

Q: What exactly does Clean4Change do, and what are your goals for it?

Roberts-Long: Clean4Change started with a focus purely on park cleanups. We were concerned with doing that direct-action work because that was what Katelyn and I had been doing on our own. But we started to turn into an organization that wanted to address a lot more than that.

We have a strong focus on education and making information accessible to people everywhere. Learning about climate change, or about how to be sustainable, is a really overwhelming topic. Our Earth’s future depends on the actions that governments, companies, and countries make within the next few years, and, to put it frankly, that’s scary. It isn’t hopeless, though. Clean4Change wants to teach people that we have the power to hold these power structures accountable.

Every Sunday, we post a “Sustainable Sunday” on our Instagram—a small post on any topic concerning the environment. We do research, make it pretty, and then share it with others. We also host events that teach people how to contact legislators, bring trash cleanup supplies, and encourage a connection with nature. We hope to connect with other organizations and plug into programs they are offering to create a network of support where we can make real, tangible change.

Our ultimate goal is to help people by helping the planet. Humans, mostly vulnerable communities who don’t contribute very much to the world’s greenhouse gases, are being hurt by climate change (and other environmental harms) constantly. Hurricanes are worsening, high levels of pollution are contributing to higher asthma rates, cities are sinking, and the list goes on. Climate change is a human issue, and we want to address climate change aggressively to help the Earth and the people on it.

Q: Tell us about your upcoming Virtual Town Hall.

Roberts-Long: This will be our very first Town Hall! It will be on Zoom on April 25 at 8 p.m. ET. The topic is how individuals can be sustainable, so we will be teaching ways to live sustainably, as well as addressing the fact that climate change is not our fault. Individual people living their lives normally aren’t the biggest polluters—it’s huge companies and the extremely wealthy owners of these companies who are contributing to the pollution.

With this Town Hall, we hope to ease the guilt that people may feel about our worsening climate and encourage hope for the future by giving people creative ways to be sustainable. Not only will some of these actions—composting, gardening, creating a no-mow lawn—lower one’s carbon footprint, but it may give them a fun hobby, too! We aren’t environmentalists who believe in blaming people for living in a society that forces them to pollute in their everyday lives. We simply want to work with the leaders of this society to change this cycle.

Click here to sign up and attend Clean4Change’s free Virtual Town Hall on April 25. 

Q: Will Clean4Change be a career for you? How do you want it to grow in the coming years?

Roberts-Long: If I can find a way for Clean4Change to be my career, I absolutely will. It’s my passion, and I never get tired of working on it. If I’m not able to make a living through Clean4Change, then I will be working with some other nonprofit or activist group. Until then, I would love to continue to see it grow.

Followers are huge—it isn’t just about the members that have jobs to do in the organization, but it’s also important to have social media followers and people who are committed to coming to events. As I said, a good chunk of our work is based on education through social media, and if no one is following us, we have no one to educate. Within the last few months, we have been growing pretty rapidly. We keep getting new members, and that’s really exciting. We are always looking for more people to be a part of our team and contribute any time or talents they can.

Q: Climate change just keeps getting worse, and many of our political leaders don’t seem to care. From your perspective as a young changemaker, how do we solve this problem of poor leadership and inaction? And what role will the next generation play?

Roberts-Long: Part of why we focus so much on education is to educate ourselves. We’re young people, and we don’t know everything. Doing our research on different topics related to climate change is our way of learning as much as possible so that we can share that information and make changes with the knowledge we have gathered.

I think that the role of this next generation in the fight against climate change is holding leaders accountable and making them listen. For so long, governments have pushed aside the issue of climate change, and now, the people most vulnerable in the world are looking climate change in the face. This issue is a hard one to solve, and Clean4Change is still finding its place in the legislative side of addressing climate change. One thing is for sure, though: We’re going to fight hard for our planet and all the people that inhabit it.

Q: Finally, can you tell us about your Ignite Retreat experience and how it helped further your goals for Clean4Change?

Roberts-Long: My Ignite Retreat experience was amazing. I haven’t been to an event anywhere near that since before the COVID pandemic, and more than anything, it helped me find the extrovert in me again. It was just the environment that I needed to be in, filled with ambitious young people finding their place, their voice, and their people. I was able to meet so many amazing changemakers and a lot of great coaches that have helped me with my nonprofit even after the retreat. I hope to return again and continue to learn all I can.

While I was there, I received funding for my nonprofit, and I learned a lot about how to be successful in running a nonprofit like mine. For example, I learned the importance of personal connection, especially over social media. I learned more about how to talk with and about communities suffering from any injustice, and I learned so many more skills along the way. My retreat experience was truly amazing.


Producing Climate-Friendly Food Is Key to Rockefeller Foundation’s New Good Food Strategy

Between Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has choked global access to wheat by 30 percent, and the ravages of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, food prices are soaring and food insecurity is a greater threat than ever. Now the Rockefeller Foundation has announced a plan to increase access to healthy and sustainable foods for 40 million underserved people around the world.

The foundation’s new Good Food Strategy, launched in late March, will invest $105 million over three years to “support a shift in public and private spending toward foods that are nutritious, regenerate the environment, and create equitable economic opportunity for people at every step of the food supply chain.”

As part of the plan, the Rockefeller Foundation is working with health insurance companies to encourage doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of pharmaceuticals whenever appropriate and helping schools and hospitals buy healthier foods.

Related: Berea College receives grant to expand efforts to combat food insecurity

The strategy builds on the foundation’s investment in powering the food system with renewable energy, part of its $1 billion commitment to an inclusive, green recovery from the pandemic and as an anchor partner of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet.

Despite the food system’s $9 trillion global market value, two-thirds of people living in extreme poverty are agricultural workers and their families, according to the foundation. Unhealthy diets account for one in five deaths worldwide, and the food system generates more than 1/4 of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In other words, the way the world produces and consumes food is failing both people and the planet, according to the foundation.

“Because of climate change, food prices were already the highest in a decade, even before Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine further decimated global food supplies. Now, the world is on the precipice of a global humanitarian crisis,” said Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. “The world must act—and act now. With this new commitment, the largest for nutrition in our history, the Rockefeller Foundation will help increase the supply of good, nourishing food and reimagine our food systems to make them more resilient for the future.”

The foundation’s Good Food Strategy will focus on three levers to increase access to affordable, healthy food; reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the food system; and expand economic opportunity for small- and mid-size food producers:

Good Food Data and Science Innovations: Investments will support metrics and data systems that better inform decision-makers on the real costs and benefits of our food. This will include:

  1. Expanding existing investments in True Cost Accounting, which evaluates all the costs of the food system beyond what consumers pay in stores
  2. Standardizing and democratizing principles, outcomes and metrics for regenerative/agroecological agriculture, including connecting a fleet of demonstration projects that show the impact potential of regenerative agriculture
  3. Harmonizing definitions of dietary quality
  4. Launching the Periodic Table of Food Initiative, a global effort to create a public database containing the comprehensive biochemical composition and function of the most important foods from around the globe.

Good Food Policy: The foundation will advance effective, data-driven policies that improve access to good food for millions of people. A major focus will be bolstering Food is Medicine programs to combat diet-related diseases, which include produce prescription programs and the integration of food as a covered health care benefit to help patients gain access to foods that promote their health.

Good Food Purchasing: The Good Food Strategy will support large institutions, including schools and hospitals, to use their existing food procurement budgets to buy and provide foods that benefit people and the planet. This includes piloting a program in Rwanda to test the transition from processed to whole grains in school feeding programs. It also includes supporting the development of Good Food Purchasing Program Standards to guide institutions around the world to make food choices that contribute to a healthier and more sustainable food future.

Related: Berry College partners with homeless shelter to train urban farmers

From a practical standpoint, according to the Associated Press, the Rockefeller Foundation will take some innovative approaches to achieving its goals, including:

  • Encouraging doctors to prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of drugs when appropriate since they can be both healthier and cheaper. The foundation is working with 10 health insurance companies to test the strategy.
  • Paying for healthy foods at schools, hospitals, prisons and other state-operated facilities.
  • Helping farmers switch to production practices that reduce the amount of carbon released into the air after they plow the ground.
  • Funding more small and medium-size food businesses to diversify the distributors and prevent supply-chain issues.

“The world is spending far too much on foods that are bad for people and bad for the planet,” said Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President, Food Initiative, for the Rockefeller Foundation. “The costs multiply in long-term damage to public health, the environment, and the livelihoods of people working in food supply chains. Our Good Food Strategy aims to reverse these trends, incentivizing progress toward a food system that respects the earth and all people.”

This article has been adapted and edited from a press release appearing on the Rockefeller Foundation website.

How to Move Past Despair and Take Powerful Action Against Climate Change

By Thomas S. Bateman, University of Virginia, and Michael E. Mann, Penn State University, The Conversation

In this think piece, Thomas Bateman, a professor at Sullivan Foundation partner school University of Virginia, and Michael Mann of Penn State University explain how to boost your sense of agency as a champion of the environment by focusing on four psychological drivers.

Our species is in a race with climate change, and a lot of people want to know, “Can I really make a difference?”

The question concerns what’s known as agency. Its meaning is complex, but in a nutshell, it means being able to do what you set out to do and believing you can succeed.

How well people exercise their agency will determine the severity of global warming—and its consequences.

The evidence is clear that people are changing the climate dramatically. But human actions can also affect the climate for the better by reducing fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions. It’s not too late to avert the worst effects of climate change, but time is running out.

Despite abundant technical agency, humanity is alarmingly short of psychological agency: belief in one’s personal ability to help. A 10-country survey study in the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that more than half of young people ages 16-25 feel afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless and helpless about climate change.

Related: Duke scientists hit the sweet spot in creating better plastics

As professors, we bring complementary perspectives to the challenges of taking action on climate change. Tom Bateman studies psychology and leadership, and Michael Mann is a climate scientist and author of the recent book, “The New Climate War.”

Believing ‘I Can Do This’
Human activities—particularly relying on coal, oil and natural gas for energy—have dramatically affected the climate, with dire consequences.

As greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuel use accumulate in the atmosphere, they warm the planet. Rising global temperatures have fueled worsening heat waves, rising sea levels and more intense storms that become increasingly harder to adapt to. A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes some of the dangerous disruptions already underway, and how they are putting people and the environment at risk.

Just like humans can choose to drive gas-guzzlers, they can also choose to act in ways that influence the climate, air quality and public health for the better. Scientific knowledge and countless opportunities for action make that agency possible.

(Photo by N Jilderda from Pexels)

A key part of agency is one’s belief—when faced with a task to perform, a situation to manage, or a long-term goal like protecting the climate—that “I can do this.” It’s known as self-efficacy.

This may be the most important psychological factor in predicting how well people will cope with both climate change and COVID-19, recent online survey data from Europe indicates. People feeling adequate agency are more likely to persevere, rebound from setbacks and perform at high levels.

With climate change, a high sense of self-efficacy strengthens a person’s willingness to reduce carbon emissions (mitigation) and prepare for climate-related disasters (adaptation). Studies confirm this for actions including volunteering, donating, contacting elected officials, saving energy, conserving water during extreme weather, and more.

How to Boost Your Sense of Agency
To build agency for something that can feel as daunting as climate change, focus first on the facts. In the case of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions cause the most harm, and people can help far more than they realize.

Successful agency has four psychological drivers, all of which can be strengthened with practice:

  1. Intentionality: “I choose my climate goals and actions for high impact.” Deciding to act with purpose—knowing what you intend to do—is far more effective than thinking, “My heart’s in the right place, I just have to find the time.” In the big picture, one’s highest climate efficacy is in participating in larger efforts to stop fossil fuel use. People can set specific ambitious goals for reducing personal and household energy use and join others in collective actions.
  2. Forethought: “I am looking ahead and thinking strategically about how to proceed.” Knowing your goals, you can think strategically and develop an action plan. Some plans support relatively simple goals involving individual lifestyle changes, such as adjusting consumption and travel patterns. Wider-reaching actions can help change systems, such as long-term activities that advocate for climate-friendly policies and politicians, or against policies that are harmful. These include demonstrations and voter campaigns.
  3. Self-regulation: “I can manage myself over time to optimize my efforts and effectiveness.” Worrying about the future is becoming a lifelong task—off and on for some, constant for others. Climate change will cause disasters and scarcities, disrupt lives and careers, heighten stress and harm public health. Seeing progress and working with others can help relieve stress.
  4. Self-reflection: “I will periodically assess my effectiveness, rethink strategies and tactics, and make necessary adjustments.” It’s difficult to imagine a greater need for lifelong learning than as we navigate decades of climate change, its many harms and efforts by fossil fuel companies to obscure the facts. Reflection—or, more precisely, keeping up with the latest science, learning and adapting—is vital as the future keeps presenting new challenges.

Related: Why the cost of mitigating climate change can’t be boiled down to one right number

Personal Agency Is Only the First Step
Even seemingly minor first steps can help reduce carbon emissions and lead to paths of greater action, but individual actions are only part of the solution. Big polluters often urge consumers to take small personal actions, which can deflect attention from the need for large-scale policy interventions.

Individual agency should be seen as a gateway for group efforts that can more quickly and effectively change the trajectory of climate change.

“Collective agency” is another form of agency. A critical mass of people can create societal tipping points that pressure industry and policymakers to move more quickly, safely and equitably to implement policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Helping to elect local, state and national officials who support protecting the climate, and influencing investors and leaders of corporations and associations, can also create a sense of agency, known as “proxy agency.”

Together, these efforts can rapidly improve humanity’s capacity to solve problems and head off disasters. Fixing the world’s climate mess requires both urgency and a sense of agency to create the best possible future.

Thomas S. Bateman is Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia, a Sullivan Foundation partner school. Michael E. Mann is the Director of the Earth System Science Center, Penn State University,

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

Sugar, Sugar: Duke Scientists Hit the Sweet Spot in Creating Better Plastics

In the search for sustainable alternatives to common plastics, researchers from Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University may have hit the sweet spot—a new, sturdy and recyclable form of plastic derived from sugar, according to New Atlas.

In collaboration with scientists from the University of Birmingham in the UK, the scientists have produced a variety of plastic with “unprecedented” mechanical properties that are maintained throughout standard recycling processes. And they used sugar-derived materials as the starting point. Specifically, sugar alcohols, which are organic compounds with a chemical structure that’s similar to the sugars they’re derived from. The team of scientists said this new plastic boasts “unprecedented” properties.

The two compounds, isoidide and isomannide, both feature rigid rings of atoms that the scientists used as building blocks for a new family of polymers. The polymer based on isoidide provides stiffness and malleability like that of typical plastics as well as strength comparable to high-grade engineering plastics.

The polymer made from isomannide shows similar strength and toughness, plus a high degree of elasticity so the plastic can recover its shape after taking a beating. The polymers both retained their unique properties after undergoing the common recycling methods of pulverization and thermal processing, the study found.

Related: Why the cost of mitigating climate change can’t be boiled down to one right number

“The team used computer modeling to study how the unique spatial arrangement of atoms within the compounds afford them these different properties, a discipline known as stereochemistry,” New Atlas reported. “As a next step, the scientists created plastics using both building blocks, which enabled them to tune the mechanical properties and degradation rates independently of one another. This raises the prospect of creating sustainable plastics with desired degradation rates without impacting on their mechanical performance.”

“Our findings really demonstrate how stereochemistry can be used as a central theme to design sustainable materials with what truly are unprecedented mechanical properties,” said Duke University professor Dr Matthew Becker.

The team has filed a patent application for the technology and is seeking industrial partners to help commercialize it. “The hope is that the sugar-based plastics can offer a more sustainable option not just in terms of production, but also their disposal, with petroleum-based plastics sometimes taking centuries to break down,” New Atlas reported.

“This study really shows what is possible with sustainable plastics,” Professor Andrew Dove said in the article. “While we need to do more work to reduce costs and study the potential environmental impact of these materials, in the long term it is possible that these sorts of materials could replace petrochemically-sourced plastics that don’t readily degrade in the environment.”

UNC Researchers Develop Method to Create a Better Plastic

The United States generates more plastic trash than any other country—about 46.3 million tons of it or 287 pounds per person a year, according to a 2020 study.

The country’s 9% rate of recycling will never keep up. Why so low? The chemistry of today’s plastics makes most difficult to recycle. Even thermoplastics that can be melted down weaken with each re-use. And that leads to the real barrier to recycling—economics. There’s just no profit incentive.

But a group of chemists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, have turned the tables by discovering a method to break down plastics to create a new material that is stronger and tougher than the original—meaning it’s potentially more valuable.

Related: William & Mary initiative challenges Virginia kids to solve microplastic pollution problem

“Our approach views plastic waste as a potentially valuable resource for the production of new molecules and materials,” said Frank Leibfarth, assistant professor of chemistry in the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.  “We hope this method could drive an economic incentive to recycle plastic, literally turning trash into treasure.”

Leibfarth and UNC-Chapel Hill professor Erik Alexanian, who specializes in chemical synthesis, describe the approach that could close the loop on plastic recycling in the journal Science.

Carbon-hydrogen bonds are some of the strongest chemical bonds in nature. Their stability makes it difficult to turn natural products into medicines and challenging to recycle commodity plastics.

But by modifying the carbon-hydrogen bonds that are common in polymers—the building blocks for modern plastic used in grocery bags, soda and water bottles, food packaging, auto parts and toys—the life span of polymers could be expanded beyond single-use plastic.

Related: The Plastic Bank turns plastic waste into currency for the poor

With a newly identified reagent that can strip hydrogen atoms off medicinal compounds and polymers, the UNC chemists were able to make new bonds in places previously considered unreactive.

“The versatility of our approach is that it enables many valuable transformations of carbon-hydrogen bonds on such a wide range of important compounds,” Alexanian said.

The Leibfarth Group at UNC is focused on designing polymers that are smarter, more functional and more sustainable. With the support of the NC Policy Collaboratory, the team developed a super-absorbent polymer capable of removing dangerous chemicals from drinking water.

Researchers envisioned using the innovative approach to help transform difficult-to-recycle plastic waste into a high-value class of polymers. They started with plastic foam packaging used to protect electronics during shipping, materials which otherwise end up in landfills. Samples of post-consumer foam were provided by High Cube LLC, a Durham, N.C., recycling company. The foam is made of a low-density plastic called a commercial polyolefin.

By selectively pulling hydrogen atoms from polyolefin, the chemists came up with a way to expand the life of the single-use plastic into a high-value plastic known as an ionomer. Popular ionomers are Dow’s SURLYN, a go-to material used in a wide variety of food packaging.

Related: UNC research explains why sea turtles eat plastic

Most recycled plastic is “downcycled” into lower quality products like carpet or polyester clothing. This material may still end up in landfills. Discarded plastics in waterways endanger sea life if, for example, turtles mistake ocean plastic for food.

But if the chemistry can be repeatedly applied to polymers to help recycle them over and over again, “it could change the way we look at plastic,” Leibfarth said.

Study co-authors include Timothy Fazekas, Jill W. Alty, Eliza K. Neidhart and Austin S. Miller.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the UNC Department of Chemistry funded the study.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of North Caroline-Chapel Hill website.


Why the Cost of Mitigating Climate Change Can’t Be Boiled Down to One Right Number

By Matthew E. Kahn, University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, The Conversation

Back in November 2019, before the pandemic began, would you have guessed how important videoconferencing like Zoom would be in people’s lives just a few months later?

That’s the kind of challenge economists face when they try to put a single number on the long-term cost of mitigating climate change or the cost of allowing global temperature to keep rising. Human behaviors shift as public policies change and new technology arrives and evolves.

I am a microeconomist who investigates the causes and consequences of climate change. When I think about the climate change challenge in 2040 and beyond, I anticipate many “known unknowns” about our future. Thus, I am amazed to read precise climate cost estimates like those recently published by economic consultants McKinsey & Co.

McKinsey pegs the global cost of transitioning energy and other sectors to net-zero emissions by 2050 at $9.2 trillion a year. The insurer Swiss Re has estimated that doing nothing will cut global GDP by as much as 14%, or about $23 trillion, by 2050.

Numbers like these are widely used to encourage action by governments, companies and individuals. Economists agree that climate change, left unchecked, will harm economies. But these estimates are produced using formal models that feature many assumptions, any one of which could throw off the accounting in a big way, leaving the estimates either wildly high or low.

While people might think they want “precision,” precise predictions raise the risk of conveying too much certainty in a constantly changing world. Here’s what goes into climate economic models and why certainty isn’t an option for future cost projections.

The Prediction Challenge

Climate economic models seek to answer several prediction questions, such as:

  • “How will the performance of the world economy be affected if we enact a carbon dioxide tax today?” The answer to this question helps us to understand the “cost of taking action.”
  • “If the entire world does enact this carbon tax, how much will greenhouse gas emissions decline by in each subsequent year?”
  • “What will we gain economically by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions?”
  • “What will be the economic and quality-of-life impact if we do nothing and just allow greenhouse gas emissions to rise under ‘business as usual’?”

To answer these complex questions, climate economists make a series of assumptions that are “baked” into their mathematical models.

Known Unknowns

First, economists must predict the world’s average income per person for each year in the future.

Macroeconomists have faced challenges predicting the timing and duration of recessions. Predicting future economic growth over the course of 30 or 40 years requires predicting how the quantity and quality of the world’s workforce and our technology will evolve over time. Predicting the world’s population growth is also a challenging exercise, as increases in urbanization, women’s access to education and improvements in birth control are all associated with reductions in fertility.

Second, they must make an informed guess about what technologies will exist in the future concerning our sources of power generation and the energy we use in transportation. If they can estimate the future world population level, income level and technology, then they can measure how much extra greenhouse gas emissions the world produces each year.

Third, they use a climate science model to estimate the extra climate change risk caused by the production of greenhouse gas emissions. This is typically measured by the increase in the world’s average surface temperature.

Fourth, they must take a stand on how our future economy’s production will be affected by rising climate change risk. Ideally, these models also tell us how releasing more greenhouse gas emissions increases the likelihood of disaster scenarios.

By combining all of these equations with their own respective assumptions, a research team generates a single number such as: The world will face $23 trillion in damages due to climate change if we take no serious actions to mitigate emissions.

The ‘Art’ of Predicting Future Emissions

Economists estimate future global greenhouse gas emissions by multiplying the predicted global gross national product – the total value of goods and services – by the average emissions per dollar of gross national product.

If the world succeeds in ending fossil fuel use, this latter figure could be close to zero. The innovation and deployment of low-carbon technologies – think electric vehicles and solar farms – can significantly shift the costs and benefits that economists are trying to quantify.

Many factors determine this path of technological advance, including investment in research and development. International politics also don’t always factor into climate economic models. For example, if China chooses to become more insular, will it increase its coal consumption because the nation is endowed with coal? Conversely, could China choose to use its powerful state to push the green tech sector to create a booming future export market that greens the world’s economy?

Forecasting Future Climate Change Impacts

Economic mathematical models boil down the impact of climate change into a single algebra equation called the “climate damage function.” In my book, “Adapting to Climate Change,” I provide several examples for why this function is continually changing and thus is very difficult to predict.

For example, many companies are developing climate risk ratings systems to educate real estate buyers about the different future climate risks specific pieces of real estate will face, such as wildfires or flooding.

Suppose this emerging climate risk rating industry makes progress in identifying less risky areas to live, and zoning codes are changed to allow more people to live in these safer areas. The damage that Americans suffer from climate change would decrease as people literally “move to higher ground.”

The confident climate modeler cannot capture this dynamic with inflexible algebra.

Chart showing cost ranges measured in percentage of GDP for climate change damage to the U.S. economy at each temperature increase, from 1 degree F to 15
The range of damage estimates is wider for higher temperature increases. (Source: Fourth National Climate Assessment)

Prediction Under Uncertainty

Climate economics models can play a “Paul Revere” role – educating policymakers and the public about the likely risks ahead. As economists build these models, they must be honest about their limitations. A model that generates “the answer” may lead decision-makers astray. As much as everyone might like a concrete answer to how much climate change and acting on climate change will cost, we’ll have to live with uncertainty.

The Conversation

Matthew E. Kahn is the Provost Professor of Economics and Spatial Sciences in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

Farmers of Tomorrow Learn Sustainable Agriculture Practices at Warren-Wilson College

America’s independent farmers don’t have it easy. We’re talking long hours, backbreaking work, toiling in the hot sun or the bone-freezing rain. You get dirty, you sweat a lot, and, when you’re dealing with livestock, you might go home at night smelling just a little bit funky. Not to mention a spell of bad weather at the wrong time can ruin everything.

Talk about building character.

At Sullivan Foundation partner school Warren Wilson College, many students do that kind of work anyway and learn a lot in the process. The Warren Wilson Farm has been thriving since it was founded in 1894, worked and supported by a student crew and current farm manager Blair Thompson. It’s a “living classroom” sprawling across 275 carefully managed acres, replete with cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens—you name it.

“The work is never mundane,” said one student, Georgia Ackerman, in a testimonial on the farm’s web page. “The puzzles that we face every day entertain our lives with necessary and real challenges. In my mind, there’s no better way to connect to one’s place than by putting in the effort to grow food holistically and resiliently.”

Related: Is insect agriculture key to the future of sustainable farming?

Located in the Swannanoa Valley near Asheville, N.C., the farm is a mixed crop and livestock operation specializing in grass-fed and grass-finished beef and lamb, pasture-raised pork and pastured poultry, plus corn and barley. Many of the farm’s products are sold at Asheville’s ASAP Farmers Market and in bulk packages and retail cuts through an online store. The meats can also be purchased by farm-to-fork restaurant owners looking to highlight locally or regionally harvested proteins on their menu.

The Warren Wilson College Farm crew recently created this harvest display at Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church, depicting the bounty of the harvests from the farm and garden.

“Their standards are very much in line with what we are committed to bring to the market,” Kate Hanford, manager of the ASAP Farmers Market, said in a 2020 interview with Mountain Xpress. “It’s a great program, and we love that students come to the market and work the booth.”

Above all, the farm is a teaching farm for students interested in pursuing careers in sustainable farming. Warren Wilson College has sent many young farmers out into the real world, teaching them how to deal with all aspects of the business, from maintaining equipment to marketing the products and mastering sustainable agriculture techniques.

“The bottom line for us is getting new farmers and new land managers trained up,” Thompson told Mountain Xpress. “This is a way to support that mission.”

Students on the farm crew have to care for, feed and move roughly 65 brood cows, 20 brood sows, 750 broilers and 300 laying hens. They plant and harvest the corn, barley and hay crops, learn to manage the crops and the pasture, repair fences, and renovate old buildings. They also get veterinary experience, from delivering newborn animals to giving shots and diagnosing and solving health problems.

Related: This Sullivan Foundation partner school makes its own vino to help the wine industry.

Learning outcomes at the Warren Wilson College Farm include: dependability, integrity, initiative, analytical thinking, communication skills, collaboration and appreciation of the value of hard work.

Asher Wright, a 2008 Warren Wilson college graduate, preceded Thompson as the farm’s manager. When Wright took the position in 2016, he told the Citizen Times that he joined the farm crew as an undergraduate and fell in love with the college. “I was a little green,” he said. “I didn’t know the front end of a cow from the back end.”

“Ecological agriculture systems are in dire need around the world,” Wright said at the time. “The college is a part of this dialogue, a dialogue that is happening at a critical time in history. We need to make sure we stay in the conversation and continue to be leaders and innovators in this field.”

Thompson took over the farm manager role in 2020 and has been working in the regenerative and sustainable agricultural field since 2006.

Working under Thompson, Ackerman said the farm “fosters an invaluable learning experience.” She added, “All workers, regardless of gender, age, wealth, experience and background, are given agency on the farm, which gives them power, confidence and motivation.

“Working on the farm has taught me how much of a difference it makes when you really love the work that you are doing,” noted Thomas Smythe, another farm crew member. “[You’re] not working just to meet required hours or to earn pay but because you believe in what you’re doing. [You’re] taking pride in every project because the thought of contributing to the bigger picture is such an empowering image.”

7 Ways to Get Students Excited About STEM

By Audrey Breen, University of Virginia

Young kids are often excited about science. Their natural curiosity is met by the wonders around them, inspiring them to imagine and then work to discover exactly how things work. A child enamored with jets may eagerly learn all about aerodynamics, thrust, intake and lift, not knowing he is captivated by the physics of flight.

Unfortunately for many, however, that enthusiasm and interest in science begins to wane as they move from the elementary years into middle and high school.

“Our research has shown that the decline in science engagement among young people begins in late elementary school and bottoms out by the end of middle school or the beginning of high school,” said Robert H. Tai, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

“A lack of science engagement among young people can easily be carried forward into a lack of science engagement as adults,” Tai said. “With scientific advances playing ever-growing roles in practically every aspect of our lives, ranging from the personal in terms of the food we eat to the global in terms of slowing climate change, engaging with science in order to make good decisions as adults is critical.”

Related: Auburn to lead STEM education initiative for students with disabilities

Efforts to maintain or improve students’ enthusiasm about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects through middle school pay off. In his 2006 paper published in the journal Science, Tai showed that kids who are interested in science when they are in the eighth grade are two to three times more likely to go into science as adults.

Since that study was published, Tai and his team have been working to answer the obvious next question: “How do we get and keep students engaged in STEM?”

(Photo by Monstera of Pexels)

According to Tai, some studies have found that the way students are taught STEM courses can affect their levels of interest. But understanding how students are taught STEM lessons should include more than just their learning experiences in the classroom.

“Whether it is participating in a STEM summer camp, in the National Science Fair competition or the First Robotics Competition, there is evidence that participation in outside-of-school programs can have a positive impact on students’ STEM attitudes,” Tai said. “In this new study, we wanted to identify exactly what these different kinds of programs were doing to get these kids excited about science.”

In his paper published recently in the Journal of Youth Development, Tai shows that engaging students in STEM is more complex than simply providing hands-on activities.

“Within the field of science education, there is an assumption that kids like to solve problems and figure things out,” Tai said. “That is true. Kids love to complete puzzles and other similar activities. The other side of that assumption is that kids like to create things. But not all kids like to do things with their hands. So, STEM education must be more than that.”

After looking over a number of STEM programs and brainstorming all sorts of activities that could engage kids in science, Tai and his team began to see a pattern of learning activities showing up across programs, even those that seemed to have little in common.

“Programs designed to most effectively engage students were comprised of seven active, intentional learning experiences,” Tai said. “These experiences can happen in both informal and formal settings.”

Not every child wants to “build” something; female students, for example, tend to want to “make” something, which they perceive as wholly different. (Photo by Alena Darmel from Pexels)

Named “The Framework,” Tai’s team developed the instrument to measure the presence of these seven experiences: Competing, Collaborating, Creating, Discovering, Performing, Caretaking, and Teaching.

Related: Bellarmine University offers STEM scholarships for low-income, high-achieving students

For example, imagine a team of three students, finalists at the National Science Fair, standing before their project about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They have finalized and displayed their experiment, published and presented their findings, and are now sharing their work with the judges as they pass by. By this time in the fair, the team of students have engaged in all seven learning experiences.

  1. Competing: By nature, the National Science Fair is a competition; students work to place higher than another team. But “competing” can mean more, according to Tai. “To compete can also mean to make and meet a challenge that may not necessarily have to do with beating someone else,” he said. “A competing learning experience may be asking students to build a tower five feet tall with a specific set of materials. The competition can be created by the goal.”
  2. Collaborating: As a team of three, the Science Fair students would need to understand what each one is there to accomplish. Collaboration allows for each member to know what their role is and how far that role reaches. “The classic example is a football team,” Tai said. “Every player on the team knows that the collaboration will fail if one of them isn’t there.”
  3. Creating: To present their work, the team would have engaged in creating or making in several ways. Words matter significantly when it comes to this learning experience. “Words used within the creating and making framework have a gender differential,” Tai said. “Female students are less interested in ‘building’ something than they are in ‘making’ something. We found that when asked to make something with materials, female students were more engaged than when asked to build something.”
  4. Discovering: The “discovering” learning experience is, perhaps, at the heart of the National Science Fair. The team of students has spent time problem-solving and figuring out a solution worthy of presenting. For this experience to be effective, students do not necessarily need to generate their own problem to solve. A leader or teacher could set up a problem for students to solve.
  5. Performing: Although they are engaged in performing, the National Science Fair finalists are not putting on a show. As Tai described, this learning experience has more to do with the importance of the work. “Performing is not just about the presentation of the work itself,” Tai said. “At the heart of it is accountability. This work counts. It matters. And by doing it, we are making a difference.”
  6. Caretaking: The National Science Fair team would have spent time caretaking, or stewarding, this project to fruition. And with the project centered on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, the students are also working to steward the environment. “Note that we are not utilizing the term, ‘master,’ which infers a kind of dominance,” Tai said. “Caretaking or stewarding implies the act of coming alongside.”
  7. Teaching: Finally, the practice of teaching is, in fact, a learning experience. Explaining what you know is an important part of learning.

Tai’s framework allows users to measure if a student is engaged in each of the seven areas, as well as if they like them or don’t. According to Tai the most important way to use this tool is to engage the students who are measuring as not liking a particular experience.

Related: Mercer University partners with Real Impact Center to get girls excited about STEM

“Just because a kid tells you they don’t like doing something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage them in that activity,” Tai said. “It is more important that you engage a kid in an area they say they don’t like. In fact, this measure is not about identifying what kids like and then giving them what they want; it is about finding out what kids aren’t into and creating a positive experience with that thing.”

For Tai, this measure is about understanding how kids learn so you can reach them more effectively.

“Based on my experience as an educator, learning begins with engagement,” Tai said. “It’s hard to teach someone something new if they’re not paying attention. So, as educators, reaching young people and engaging their minds with science opens the door to learning, and even more importantly, opens the door for young people to explore science on their own, as something they want to do in their own time.”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Virginia website.