Sustainable initiative doubles its size to help eastern Iowa communities

Group of UI students will work on 25 different community projects this year

A University of Iowa initiative is doubling its size to provide sustainability opportunities to Iowa communities.

The Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, which began five years ago, is a campus-wide effort to work with partners in the cities of Cedar Rapids, Washington, and Muscatine. Students and teachers of roughly ten disciplines such as engineering and public health will work on roughly 25 different community projects this year — the most projects it has ever had, and the most communities the initiative has ever worked with at once.

“We’re always looking to try and better serve the community,” said Nick Benson, program coordinator for the initiative. “The program is not static, we’re always looking for how to evolve this program based on the sustainable initiative program.”

The initiative was based on a program at the University of Oregon, but was adapted to fit community needs in Iowa. Depending on the class involved, each project can last for a semester or year. Students create plans for their community organization with the help of UI faculty who act as advisors.

Beyond helping communities in the state, Benson said an inclusive approach helps unite the university students and staff as well.

“In 2012 we realized with sustainability, you have to look at it holistically,” Benson said. “We involve a lot of different departments, and also provide more opportunities for civic engagement for students.”

Students “learning while doing” is an approach that is becoming more popular, said Chuck Connerly, founder of the program. He is a director and professor in the UI School of Urban and Regional Planning.

“They like the idea of working with a local community,” Connerly said. “It raises the bar, but it also means what you’re doing now is not just a paper your professor sees at the end of the semester. It means you can make a difference that will have a lasting impact.”

While the initiative has grown this year, Connerly said the goal of the program is not necessarily to continue to add more projects for students to complete, but to try and further the inclusion of other UI departments, such as many colleges in the College of Liberal Arts.

“We’ve gotten where we want to, now we have to look toward the future where we’re not sure bigger is always better,” he said. “We want more departments to be involved. We’re looking at the mainstream liberal arts department to participate more; we have a few rhetoric classes that are involved, and we would love to expand [to more colleges in the UI].”

Communities receiving the help and feedback from students are also appreciative new ideas the students can offer.

“It’s always great to have fresh minds look at something with a fresh perspective,” said Sandi Fowler, assistant city manager-development services for the city of Cedar Rapids. “It’s been a while since most of us have been in a classroom, and it’s great to see what they’ve been learning in the classroom.”

Connerly hopes the program will expand beyond eastern Iowa, and benefit more areas across the state. Fowler said Iowa as a whole could benefit from the initiative, as cities always need more help.

“Cities across the state, and cities across the country, want to get more projects done than they have staff available,” Fowler said. “As long as you have enough people to manage the program, this is very beneficial and a great way to supplement staff with people with academic experience.”

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