HomeGrants2023 Impact Goal grants award $1.1M to support interdisciplinary, sustainability-focused project teams

2023 Impact Goal grants award $1.1M to support interdisciplinary, sustainability-focused project teams

As increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses and environmental degradation threaten people and ecosystems around the world, sustainability issues have never been more pressing. At the same time, signals are emerging of pathways to a liveable future, including growth in clean energy, greater consideration of natural capital in decision-making, and advocacy for socio-economic equity. To make progress on sustainability challenges – and their solutions – greater collaboration between universities, public and private sector organizations, and communities is required.

Through its Impact Goals granting program, IonE funds exactly this type of collaborative, outcomes-oriented work. Our 2023 call for proposals – part of a multi-year initiative, during which IonE competitively awards grants and professionally supports interdisciplinary teams working in collaboration with community partners – resulted in a grand total of $1.1 million awarded to fund eight teams’ sustainability-focused projects.

“Through this granting program, the Institute is able to direct significant resources – and support – to projects that will have tangible impacts in Minnesota and beyond,” notes IonE Executive Director Jessica Hellmann. Additional University investments (via MPact25 and the MNtersections goal) and a philanthropic gift from the Seeding The Future van Lengerich Family Foundation expanded the pool of funding available this cycle, allowing for an even greater diversity of projects funded.

We are excited to announce this year’s funded projects, which include partnerships between University of Minnesota staff, faculty, and students – spanning the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, as well as systemwide Extension units – and their partners in higher education, nonprofits, community farms, government, and the private sector. Focus areas include: carbon neutrality, clean drinking water, healthy food systems, land use, and sustainability pedagogy.

The following project descriptions are presented in alphabetical order – and are based on information provided by teams and may be lightly edited. 


Assessing the role of MN lake associations in improving water quality

Degradation of water quality in Minnesota lakes and rivers threatens sustainable supplies of water. State-led initiatives track water quality; however, local government entities often drive actions to improve water quality. Without a documented set of best practices for local government entities to prioritize their activities, Minnesota will struggle to improve water quality. 

This project will examine the role of lake associations in water quality improvements by quantifying whether any features of lake associations are systematically associated with improvements in lake water quality. It will combine a survey of Minnesota lake associations with historic data on water quality from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Features of lake associations, including budgets, volunteer activity, actions, projects, and partnerships with other local units of government will be evaluated. The results of the project will identify characteristics or practices consistently correlated with improvements in water quality and lay the groundwork for more sustainable water supplies.

Project Team: Afton Clarke-Sather, Department of Geography and Philosophy, UMN-Duluth; Nathan Johnson, Department of Civil Engineering, UMN-Duluth; Jeff Forester, MN Lakes and Rivers Advocates; Anna Peterson, Water Resource Science Graduate Program, UMN-Duluth


Carbon credits for food recovery

The goal of this project is to determine what carbon credit programs exist that would work with food recovery efforts and how these programs could incentivize carbon emission reductions for Minnesota. This project will focus on exploring incentivization mechanisms that could provide financial benefits for food recovery, including review and analysis of existing carbon markets and carbon offset programs. 

The team will develop a comprehensive “how to” guide with their community partner, the Community Action Center of Northfield, to support implementation within their food recovery for hunger relief efforts. Finally, the team will expand the analysis beyond the CAC and explore how incentivizing food recovery with carbon markets or offsets could scale up, both regionally and across Minnesota.

Project Team: Jennifer Schmitt, Institute on the Environment; Susanna Gibbons, Carlson School of Management, UMN-Twin Cities; Jason Hill, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities; Andi Sutton, Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, University of Minnesota Extension; Madisen Gittlin, Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Graduate Program, UMN-Twin Cities; Scott Wopata, Community Action Center of Northfield


Co-creating automated local water quality monitoring technology: a pilot process and partnership

Water is the most vital of natural resources, but climate-related changes, pollutants, invasive species, and pathogens threaten many water systems that keep humans and ecosystems thriving. Thus, judicious and efficient management is essential for continued environmental health and human well-being, however limited funding and personnel challenge local management and monitoring of water resources. Furthermore, water quality monitoring often requires employees to travel to remote locations and encounter unsafe situations, ultimately leading to inconsistent monitoring.

Capitalizing on the University of Minnesota’s unique personnel, robotic resources, and community partnership with the National Park Service, this multidisciplinary team will assess the potential for adopting robots into local water quality monitoring. The team will enhance an autonomous underwater vehicle to measure physical, chemical, or biological indicators related to aquatic resource management goals as a prototype. A user-friendly dashboard will be created to visualize the collected data and allow users to interact with the robot in near-real time.

The team will expand relationships with organizations that serve communities underrepresented in water quality-related programming. They will engage in structured conservations to gain insights into challenges and opportunities related to automated water-quality where there is potential to partner together for future opportunities.

Project Team: Amy Kinsley, Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, UMN-Twin Cities; Junaed Sattar, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities; Ingrid Schneider, Department of Forest Resources, UMN-Twin Cities; Alan Robbins-Fenger, National Park Service; as well as graduate and undergraduate students, still to be decided.


Delivering culturally integrated sustainability education through supported teacher professional development

This project will leverage a partnership between the University of Minnesota, Bemidji State University, and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to develop and assess a teacher professional development program aimed at supporting teachers as they deliver culturally supportive sustainability curriculum in their classrooms. 

The project will help identify the most impactful design features of a theoretically ground professional development program for promoting teacher self-efficacy. It will also explore the impact of culturally supportive curriculum on the connectedness to nature and attitudes towards sustainability for students.

Project Team: Seth Thompson, Department of Biology Teaching and Learning, UMN-Twin Cities; Katie Johnston-Goodstar, School of Social Work, UMN-Twin Cities; Jim Cotner, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, UMN-Twin Cities; Hillary Barron, Department of Biology, Bemidji State University; Seth Moore, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa


Full circle: developing stakeholder-informed guidelines for net-zero energy affordable housing development

Bringing sustainable, net zero energy design to the affordable housing sector reduces carbon emissions, stabilizes energy costs, and improves indoor air quality and occupant health. To achieve these benefits, it is imperative that the new technologies, construction assemblies, and features of these homes are assembled and operating properly – and truly benefit residents as planned. Unfortunately, the construction industry rarely verifies this, which is particularly problematic given the complexity of net zero energy design. 

This research project aims to close this gap by circling back to four recently completed net zero energy developments. At these properties, the research team proposes to conduct post-occupancy evaluations with residents, building managers, and construction contractors, as well as verify the energy performance and indoor air quality. Key findings will be synthesized into best practices that will help future affordable housing developments more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of their residents.

Project Team: Daniel Handeen, Architecture, UMN-Twin Cities; Caren Martin, College of Design, UMN-Twin Cities; Rolf Jacobson, College of Design, UMN-Twin Cities; Peter Hilger, Construction Management program, UMN-Twin Cities; Patrick Huelman, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, UMN-Twin Cities; Elizabeth Turner, Precipitate; Anna Koosmann, Precipitate; Imani Mosher, Precipitate; Scott Wopata, Community Action Center of Northfield; Andi Sutton, Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, University of Minnesota Extension


Microplastic pollution in urban agricultural ecosystems

Urban agriculture has been targeted as a solution to meet a range of sustainable development goals, including: responsible production systems, equitable access to nutritious food, and reducing net carbon release. However, urban areas available for farming are often polluted. An emerging concern in urban areas is microplastic pollution, but there is little data on levels and mitigation in urban agriculture. 

This project will build on a community partnership with Urban Roots, a non-profit in east St. Paul that fosters urban agriculture and green space restoration. Initially, the team will survey the extent of microplastic pollution in several urban gardens. They will then experiment with biochar as a soil amendment to reduce the movement of microplastics from soils to plants and consumers. The team will also explore the impacts of such microplastic pollution on common urban pollinators, using the cabbage white butterfly as an experimental system.

Project Team: Emilie Snell-Rood, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, UMN-Twin Cities; Lindsey Kemmerling, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, UMN-Twin Cities; Lauren Agnew, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, UMN-Twin Cities; Cara Santelli, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities; Nic Jelinski, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, UMN-Twin Cities; Lee Penn, Department of Chemistry, UMN-Twin Cities; Matt Simcik, Division of Environmental Health Sciences, UMN-Twin Cities; David Woods, Urban Roots; Skyler Hawkins, Urban Roots


Powering healthy food systems and carbon neutrality on a campus farm

The overarching goal of this project is to engage the UMN-Duluth campus and community in activities that promote both healthy food systems and carbon neutrality at the UMD Land Lab. In partnership with the Lake Superior Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association, the team will identify research needs of local sustainable farmers and engage students in finding solutions through Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences. This project will shorten local food supply chain lengths and increase access to safe, nutritious food. 

The Land Lab produce will be aggregated at the emerging Duluth Armory Development Project Food Hub for processing and distribution. The team will enroll in the USDA-funded MN Million project, with the goal of ramping up tree seedling production for forest restoration and carbon sequestration. 

Collectively, these projects will provide high-impact student experiences, absorb farmers’ risk by testing new crops and technologies, and demonstrate profitable crop diversification for sustainability.

Project Team: Julie Etterson, Department of Biology, UMN-Duluth; Jonna Korpi, Office of Sustainability, UMN-Duluth; Paul Bates, Department of Biology, UMN-Duluth; Karen Gran, Department of Earth and Environmental Science, UMN-Duluth; Afton Clarke-Sather, Department of Geography and Philosophy, UMN-Duluth; David Abazs, Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, University of Minnesota Extension; Frank Maragi, Department of Biology, UMN-Duluth; Matthew van Wageningen, Office of Sustainability, UMN-Duluth; John Beaton, Fairhaven Farm; Melissa Bakker Roach, MN Farmers Union, St. Louis County Chapter; Claire Lande, Farm Lande


Towards mainstreaming nature’s value in Minnesota’s decision-making: a review of knowledge gaps, implementation challenges, and emerging opportunities

The primary goal of this project is to understand the knowledge gaps, implementation challenges, and emerging opportunities for nature-based solutions (NBS) mainstreaming into decision-making in Minnesota.

According to research published in PNAS Natural Climate Solutions, NBS can provide 37% of CO2 mitigation needed to keep warming below 2°C globally. The Nature Conservancy states nature can draw down 26 million metric tons of carbon and provide more than $30 billion of ecosystem services in Minnesota. With all these expected benefits, Minnesota is not employing NBS at the pace and scale expected to meet climate and biodiversity goals, which the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency details is due to limited efforts in mainstreaming nature’s value into Minnesota’s policy instruments and private sector investment choices. 

To uncover NBS challenges and opportunities, the team will begin the first phase of the project, focusing on engaging and building relationships with primary stakeholders (BIPOC nonprofits, private sector organizations, and public sector decision-makers) through active field visits and listening sessions. They will conduct document reviews of scientific papers, policy documents, and regulations, and present their findings. Based on the success of phase one, the team will then organize rounds of multi-stakeholder, community-engaged workshops. The findings will culminate in a manuscript for journal publication intended to: identify NBS data and knowledge gaps; help government agencies learn and implement NBS policies and regulations; be shared with corporate and philanthropic leaders to make a business case for NBS investment.

Project Team: Nfamara Dampha, Institute on the Environment; Michelle Heyn, Carlson School of Management, UMN-Twin Cities; Stephen Polasky, Department of Applied Economics, UMN-Twin Cities, Samuel Leguizamon Grant, Rainbow Research; as well as a NatCap postdoc fellow, still to be decided.

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