Undergrad helps teach orphans about hydroponic farming

There are capstones, and there are capstones.

For his capstone—a discipline-spanning research project required of all students graduating from CALS—soil science student Jacob Kruse BS’16 spent a summer working with orphans in Lima, Peru, to set up and run a hydroponic growing system.

More than 60 children from the Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage—a mission of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin—participated in growing crops that included tomatoes, peppers, bok choy and lettuce. The kids learned all about hydroponics, the art of growing plants in water, sand or gravel instead of soil, adding nutrients as needed.

But the project’s overarching benefits ran deeper. Beyond producing and learning about healthy food, “The goals were to teach children about water and natural resource use and reuse, help build connections between families and friends through common interests and projects and help the children develop responsibility,” says Kruse.

Kruse spent three months helping build the system and offering hands-on instruction on the basics of hydroponics—one class for older children and another for the younger ones. The kids learned about the environmental benefits of hydroponics, how to build home hydroponics out of household items and how to care for the garden.

A manufacturer of specialty chemicals for construction and industry, Sika Peru S.A., funded the project and built the garden structures with recycled materials. Mantisee, a nonprofit organization, provided the system design and plants. Both organizations, Kruse says, are concerned with natural resource use and social development, and they see the hydroponic system as a way to teach water use and nutrient efficiency—an important point in Lima, the world’s second-driest capital city.

Sika has also set up a scholarship and internship program for children at Casa Hogar who complete the hydroponic classes. “Sika’s scholarship and internship program will truly be life-changing for our children, and this collaborative project will have a lasting impact on our orphanage and the children who call it home,” says Jordan Zoroufy, Casa Hogar’s director of development.

Kruse’s faculty advisor, soil science professor Phillip Barak, is both impressed and delighted with the project. “We like our capstone experiences to be very hands-on and to have a service component,” Barak says. “Jake’s self-designed capstone sets a very high bar—food, children and education. Helping build a hydroponic food system from the ground up and turning it over to the children in the orphanage is quite an accomplishment.”

Adventures in Global Health

When it comes to study abroad experiences, an elephant ride in Thailand is pretty hard to beat.

“The entire time we were around the elephants, I was smiling uncontrollably,” says Gilad Segal, a microbiology major. “It was amazing to interact with them and get a sense of their personalities. Riding on the back of an elephant through the jungle and into a watering hole is something I never imagined I would do.”

And it was a great way to learn about the animals and efforts to protect them. Located in the “Golden Triangle”—the fabled convergence of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos—the Anatara Elephant Sanctuary improves the health and well-being of elephants by renting them from their owners and then caring for the elephant, the owner and his family as they continue to work humanely with tourists. In that part of the world, elephants frequently are victims of exploitation in the tourist industry, where their owners, called “mahouts,” earn a living by offering rides and having elephants perform tricks, often while not receiving adequate care.

“This solution allows the mahout to still live comfortably in that the camp provides them with a place to live and a monthly stipend for their elephant,” explains fellow microbiology major Lauren Raasch. “The elephants are cared for and are not overworked for tourist purposes.”

The students also examined the elephants’ microbiota by swabbing various parts of the animals and isolating and identifying microorganisms back in the lab at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The elephant camp was only one of several excursions during the seven-week, five-credit study abroad experience. The combined Microbiology 304/ Languages and Culture of Asia 300 program was the brainchild of bacteriology instructor Jon Roll BS’88 PhD’96, who developed the idea with biology advisor Todd Courtenay and teamed with Anthony Irwin, a doctoral student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, to lead the course’s cultural components.

The program debuted last summer with 14 students and is poised to reach its cap of 20 students in summer 2017. It satisfies a required field study component for the popular Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a CALS-administered program in UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute.

Roll got the idea when visiting Mae Fah Luang University to explore research collaborations. “I saw their instructional lab facilities and was very impressed,” he says.

The course kicks off with a week of cultural orientation at another institution, the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute in Chiang Mai. There students learn some basic Thai and become acquainted with various aspects of Thai culture, which include wearing uniforms to class (a white top and dark pants or skirts); not pointing at things (which is considered rude); taking shoes off when entering a home; eating dinner food for breakfast (the Western idea of breakfast food doesn’t exist); and, above all, keeping voices down. “Tone it down like 10 notches,” advises Raasch in a blog she kept on the trip, noting that the Thai communication style tends to be quieter and less confrontational.

In addition to the elephant camp, field trips included meeting with SOLD, a nonprofit that offers job training to young people at risk for sex trafficking, and learning about nutrition and food safety from a monk who is well known for his scholarship in those areas.

As for the basic science component, although Microbiology 304 is a demanding course, students appreciated the program’s hands-on, in-the-field approach to learning.

“The microbiology lab helped me learn a lot not only about microbiology, but also how science applies to everyday life,” says biology major Therese Renaud.

Students came home with a much bigger picture of the world.

“I just want to talk forever about everything I had the opportunity to experience,” says Raasch. “The cumulative experience of adapting to and gaining an appreciation of a new culture was by far the most memorable part.”

Mali: Helping women farm

Women in many industrialized countries are all too familiar with the “second shift”—the domestic duties they still perform disproportionately (compared with their husbands) once their formal workday is over.

That phenomenon is also key to understanding women’s work productivity in a developing country like Mali, according to studies led by Jeremy Foltz, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

More than farm technologies, family structures determine agricultural productivity for Malian women, Foltz found. Understanding both household priorities and labor allocation for Malian women outside of farming was key to Foltz’s research on generating improvements in agricultural productivity.

Foltz received a seed grant from the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison to explore gender, agricultural productivity and sustainability in Mali. One of Foltz’s graduate students, Julie Collins, focused her research in Mali on issues that cause women’s fields to have lower yields than those farmed by men.

Foltz’s and Collins’ research offers a new perspective on women as farmers in Africa. Women’s duties at home and with their children are their first priorities, the researchers found, leaving women with less time for farming.

“These findings have huge implications for how one thinks about women in agriculture in Africa,”says Foltz. “Most of the current thinking is that women are inherently less productive, so we need to get them better technology to help them be better farmers. Our data suggest a different story.”

Women can produce as much as men, Foltz says—and those who do either don’t have many children, or they can call upon more labor in the home.

Time-saving features and solutions, including childcare, could make a big difference, giving women more time to farm. So would basic utilities and appliances. “Certainly things that reduce the amount of time women need to spend on household chores— like running water and gas stoves—would have a positive effect on production,” Foltz says.

Creating any new agricultural technologies designed specifically to help women in Mali must acknowledge labor demands in their homes. “Technologies that solve productivity issues for Malian women are not exclusively agricultural,” says Foltz.

Time-saving solutions in the field could also increase Malian women’s crop yields, Foltz says.

“Women I have talked to in Mali are very excited about the possible use of herbicides because weeding labor is the hardest thing to come by in the production system,” says Foltz. “If you can spend money to get rid of your weeds rather than labor time that you don’t have because you are taking care of your kids, you’re ultimately going to save time and improve your productivity.”

Uganda: Soap paves the way to success

Most of us take soap for granted in our daily lives. Not so in the village of Lweza, Uganda, where only a third of the population has access to improved sanitation facilities and women face unemployment and economic opportunity challenges.

To address these problems, CALS genetics major Corinne Praska and gender and women’s studies major Mackenzie Carlson designed and implemented “The Soap Project: Women’s Empowerment & Sanitation in Lweza.”

Last year they traveled to Lweza, where they hosted workshops to teach women how to make soap inexpensively using local products and ingredients— and market it to local vendors. They also educated the community about soapmaking’s positive health impacts, which include sanitation, disease prevention and economic stimulation.

Four women from the community volunteered to lead a soap-making demonstration for the village, Praska says. “What was so neat was that they were talking to us in English, then presenting it to the community in Lugandan as they were doing things,” she recalls. “The community stayed involved that way, asking questions and giving comments and suggestions. It was a collaborative effort. They even made up a song to sing while they were mixing the soap. It was so cool.”

For their project, Praska and Carlson received a Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowship. The fellowships are awarded annually to undergraduate student projects aimed at solving issues identified by local or global communities. The semester- or year-long projects are designed by students in collaboration with a community organization and a UW–Madison faculty or academic staff member. Student recipients receive three academic credits and are invited to present their work at the spring Undergraduate Symposium.

“Assisting people at a community level to improve their health, while at the same time creating greater economic opportunities for them, is what development is all about,” says faculty sponsor and CALS biochemistry professor James Ntambi, who grew up in Lweza. “The project epitomizes what we hope for our students—connecting deeply with the community on issues that are important to them.”

The Soap Project has had a great impact on the community. Through the use of local products, it has boosted the local economy and raised awareness about proper sanitation practices. To ensure its future success, Praska and Carlson are seeking younger students to take it on and continue to work with the people of Lweza. A Go Fund Me account has been set up to help the soapmakers build a workshop.

“We just were blown away by the kindness, inclusivity and appreciation that all the people in the village showed,” says Praska. “When visitors come and the community really likes them, they invite them to be a part of it by assigning them clans and nicknames. We both got clans!”

To learn more about the Soap Project, contact James Ntambi at james.ntambi@wisc.edu or John Ferrick (CALS International Programs) at john.ferrick@wisc.edu.

Safer Nanotech

Although so tiny they are invisible, it’s easy to see that nanomaterials are becoming a big thing. There are odor-fighting socks and antibacterial dishrags impregnated with silver nanoparticles. Nano-sized titanium dioxide can be found in a long list of food and consumer products, including salad dressing, cake frosting, toothpaste and sunscreen. The vibrantly colored screen of the Kindle Fire can be attributed to quantum dots, a.k.a. nano-scale crystals of semiconductors such as cadmium selenide. And the list goes on.

Nanomaterials are tiny by definition, measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers along one or more dimension. (By comparison, a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers in width.) At this scale, they possess unique physical and chemical properties that make them useful for a wide array of applications, including consumer products, environmental remediation and medicine. Yet there are many unanswered questions about their safety.

“We don’t know a lot about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and we have much to learn about the potential risks associated with the release of these materials into the environment,” says Joel Pedersen, Rothermel Bascom Professor of Soil Science at CALS.

Pedersen is part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary research team exploring these unknowns as part of the UW–Madison-based Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, which was founded in 2012 with support from the National Science Foundation. Center scientists are working to understand how nanomaterials interact with living systems and the environment, with the practical goal of developing the insights needed to start creating nanomaterials that are designed to be more environmentally benign. This includes re-engineering them to make them safer, if needed.

With expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering, Pedersen is in charge of the Center’s efforts to develop laboratory models to assess the biological impacts of nanomaterials. While he has done some experiments in zebrafish, Pedersen’s work for the Center focuses on innovative, non-biological approaches, including creating “artificial cell surfaces” in the lab.

“Our intent is to get down to the molecular level,” Pedersen explains. “What are the rules that govern how these materials interact with biological systems? In particular, how do these particles interact with cell membranes?”

One way Pedersen’s group makes artificial cell surfaces is by depositing lipid vesicles on a special quartz crystal sensor until the vesicles spontaneously rupture and then fuse to form a lipid bilayer—the basic structure of a cell membrane—on the sensor’s surface.

When electricity is applied to the sensor, it causes the system to vibrate at a particular frequency. Next, Pedersen’s team applies nanomaterials to the artificial cell surface. The sensor can detect subtle changes in the frequency of the vibration, yielding clues about the interaction between the material and the membrane.

By combining the results of this approach with others, Pedersen is finding that some nanoparticles, by virtue of their unique physical and chemical properties, seem to be able to extract lipids from the cell surface.

“Our results are consistent with the idea that these nanoparticles are grabbing lipids out of the membrane and acquiring a lipid coating when they come in contact with a cell,” explains Pedersen.

This cell membrane-disrupting behavior is a concern for the health of humans and animals. And while Pedersen’s team hasn’t observed this behavior in models of bacterial cell surfaces, there are other, broader concerns about the impacts of nanomaterials on microbial communities in the environment.

“Eukaryotes are our main focus, but there is some concern that nanomaterials in the environment can alter microbial community compositions. At present, we don’t know to what extent such changes could be problematic,” says Pedersen.

The information gained from Pedersen’s research will help inform the work of other scientists in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology who focus on tweaking nanoparticles to make them safer.

“Ultimately, the goal is to redesign nanomaterials to minimize their adverse effects, or find better ways to embed them in materials so they aren’t released into the environment,” Pedersen says.

Ecuador: Better Health through Messaging

Some communities in Ecuador face high incidences of water-borne illness because of contaminated water or poor hygiene and sanitation. It’s a multipronged problem calling for an interdisciplinary approach combining natural, medical and social sciences. Bret Shaw, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, last year helped implement a social science approach with funding from the UW–Madison Global Health Institute.

“I used a social marketing perspective, which utilizes psychological and communication tools, to try to help villagers make lasting behavior changes in how they interact with water and sanitation,” explains Shaw.

Shaw worked with two undergraduates, Lauren Feierstein and Brenna O’Halloran, to create health behavioral prompts—small signs in Spanish left in important areas where a reminder to wash hands is vital, such as in bathrooms, near sinks and on bottles of water. Since many people in the community have limited literacy, it was important for the prompts to use images and very few words.

While the concept can seem intuitive, years of research show that the most effective prompts focus on self-efficacy—showing individuals how easy a behavior is—and making sure that the people in the graphic are relatable to the target population. The images and words Shaw’s team used were as specific as possible, showing an individual washing his or her hands with just a simple phrase underneath.

“Understanding the perspectives on why someone wouldn’t do something such as boil their water or wash their hands was very important,” says Feierstein, who also worked with residents on making and distributing organic soap. “Knowing those barriers was crucial to addressing the issue from all angles.”

The project was an extension of a course called “Water for Life Sustainability and Health,” a partnership between the Madison-based Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation and the Global Health Institute. The course is led by Catherine Woodward, a faculty associate with UW–Madison’s Institute for Biology Education and president of the Ceiba Foundation. Shaw was brought in to offer guidance about how social marketing strategies can encourage healthy behavior.

“I’m a biologist and most of the people we work with are biologists, so having a communications person on board was a critical part of getting the message out,” says Woodward. “And not just about the message and having people understand why it’s a good idea to conserve natural resources—but also to actually get them to change their behavior.”

Mexico: Mapping the roots of poverty and inequality

What makes development projects work? Jennifer Alix-Garcia, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, is diving deep into Mexico’s history to shed light on that question. Specifically, she seeks to illuminate what political, climatic and epidemiological events in 16th-century Mexico tell us about the country’s modern agrarian system—and what role history played in defining the present.

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1519, they found an advanced society of about 25 million people. Only six decades later, European diseases and local plagues, coupled with the severest drought in 600 years, had killed 90 percent of the native population. It was one of the worst demographic collapses in human history.

“Such radical depopulation had to have a large impact on the institutions developed by the Spanish colonists,” explains Alix-Garcia. In particular, the population collapse enabled the colonists to claim land once farmed by those who had succumbed to pestilence. This led to the formation of large landholdings (haciendas) that dominated the Mexican economy and society for generations.

“The hacienda owners were able to control the labor force because they owned most of the land,” says Alix-Garcia. Worker shortages led to coercive labor practices that mimicked European feudalism or even slavery.

Though the hacienda system no longer exists, Alix-Garcia and graduate student Emily Sellars PhD’15 show that it continues to shape Mexico’s development. During the 20th century, more than half the nation’s land was redistributed in one of the largest agrarian reforms in history. Haciendas were dismantled and peasants were given common-property parcels—or ejidos—that allow for limited farming rights without direct ownership.

Using data on population and land ownership from colonial days to the present, the team has mapped patterns of land distribution in modern-day Mexico. They find that areas with the highest depopulation saw the greatest increase in land inequality, which subsequently led to high demand for land reform.

“We’re using events occurring four centuries before the reform to predict its intensity,” says Alix-Garcia. “We hope this will help us understand the role of land redistribution on the well-being of today’s rural communities.”

Despite decades of agrarian reform efforts around the globe, evidence on their development impact remains elusive. Recent studies in India and South Africa show poverty reduction effects, but the particular case of Mexico’s reform defies the pattern.

“I want to map Mexico’s development outcomes so that we can see if our theories about the power of institutions are correct,” Alix-Garcia says. “If we can recognize the fundamental sources of inequities in society—the importance of specific local institutions embedded in a long history—we can design policies that truly encourage economic growth.”

Middle East: Improving water policy in an arid region

Political conflict in the Middle East is a constant source of media attention, but Samer Alatout, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, focuses his efforts on a serious but less heralded struggle: how to best manage fresh water in a region that has so little.

Alatout, an expert on environmental policy in the Middle East, received Fulbright funding last year to advance his research on water policy—work that took him back to his hometown of Nablus, in the northern West Bank.

There he taught at An-Najah National University and established a number of research partnerships with Palestinian colleagues. He gathered valuable information about water policy in the region for these new collaborative projects, for his broader research program and for his forthcoming book, Water History and Politics in Historic Palestine: From Empire to Globalization, 1750–2009.

In one of those projects, Alatout is assessing the interplay of administrative units that have jurisdiction over water resources in the Palestinian territories—but that don’t always work together “in the most efficient or equitable way,” notes Alatout. He and his collaborator will analyze conditions on the ground and propose recommendations. “This project is about building better institutional mechanisms to solve administrative overlap among agencies,” Alatout explains.

In another project he looks at policies governing how Palestine and Israel share water resources, including the large mountain aquifer that sits beneath them. The goal is to find alternative ways for sharing the water that are more equitable—and work for all parties.

“It’s about how to negotiate productive solutions for managing trans-boundary water resources,” says Alatout. “In particular, how do you create win-win solutions, so that water access in Palestine can be increased without affecting Israeli communities in a negative way?”

Another big-picture goal arose from Alatout’s Fulbright trip: to help build the institutional relationship between UW–Madison and An-Najah National University, with the long-term objective of helping Palestinians tackle some of the tough environmental and agricultural challenges they face. These include arid climate, pollution and soil erosion.

“Any help that UW experts can provide in terms of research will make a huge difference on the ground in the daily lives of people,” says Alatout. At the same time, true to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and the push for internationalization, “Getting involved in an arid region like Palestine can be very productive for CALS researchers,” Alatout notes. “They will benefit greatly from facing fundamentally different issues surrounding agriculture and water policy making.”

PHOTO: Samer Alatout at a small reservoir linked to Al-Auja spring. The water is distributed to fisheries and a date farm in nearby Jericho.

Uganda: The Benefits of Biogas

Generating enthusiasm for a new kind of technology is key to its long-term success. Rebecca Larson, a CALS professor of biological systems engineering, has already accomplished that goal in Uganda, where students at an elementary school in Lweeza excitedly yell “Biogas! Biogas!” after learning about anaerobic digester systems.

Larson, a UW–Extension biowaste specialist and an expert in agricultural manure management, designs, installs and upgrades small-scale anaerobic digester (AD) systems in developing countries. Her projects are funded by the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison and several other sources. Community education and outreach at schools and other installation sites are an important part of these efforts.

Children get excited by the “magic” in her work, she says. “It’s converting something with such a negative connotation as manure into something positive,” Larson notes. In an AD system, this magic is performed by bacteria that break down manure and other organic waste in the absence of oxygen.

The resulting biogas, a form of energy composed of methane and carbon dioxide, can be used directly for cooking, lighting, or heating a building, or it can fuel an engine generator to produce electricity.

Larson’s collaborators in Uganda include Sarah Stefanos and Aleia McCord, graduate students at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies who joined forces with fellow students at Makarere University in Kampala to start a company called Waste 2 Energy Ltd.
Along with another company, Green Heat Uganda, which has built a total of 42 digesters, Waste 2 Energy has helped install four AD systems since 2011.

“Most of these digesters are locally built underground dome systems at schools and orphanages,” Larson explains. Lweeza’s elementary school is a perfect example.

The AD systems use food waste, human waste from pit latrines and everything in between. The biogas generated by the digester is run through a pipeline to a kitchen stove where the children’s meals are prepared. Compared to traditional charcoal cooking, the AD systems greatly reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Larson and her team are now focusing on enhancing the efficiency and environmental benefits of these systems. Their goals are to improve the digester’s management of human waste, reduce its water needs, increase the amount of energy it produces and generate cheap fertilizer to boost food crop yields.

“Our overall goal is to create a closed-loop and low-cost sustainability package that addresses multiple local user needs,” Larson says.

The beauty of the project is that all these needs can be met by simply adding two new components to the existing systems: heating elements and a solid-liquid separator.

To help visualize the impact of the fertilizer, Larson set up demonstration plots that compare crop yields with and without it. Down the road, a generator could be added to the system to provide electricity in a country where only 9 percent of the population currently has access.

As a next step, Larson hopes to replicate the project’s success in Bolivia. She is finalizing local design plans with Horacio Aguirre-Villegas, her postdoctoral fellow in biological systems engineering, and their collaborators at the Universidad Amazonica de Pando in Cobija.

Russia: Monitoring Russia’s “rewilding”

Doing fieldwork in the remote wilderness of Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are long distances to travel on deeply rutted roads, bleak outpost towns with meager accommodations, and bears and wolves to contend with. Plus—in the case of visiting American scientists—the constant presence of an armed guard who wasn’t there to protect them from large carnivores. “

He was there in case we encountered illegal poachers,” explains forest and wildlife ecology (FWE) professor Volker Radeloff, who has been visiting Russia in a research capacity for a dozen years, most recently with his fellow FWE professor Anna Pidgeon.

According to the duo (who are married), the opportunity to visit two of Russia’s protected areas— the Kologrivksi Forest northeast of Moscow and the Caucasus Mountains in the south—is worth the trouble.

That’s because Russia offers a unique case study for conservation scientists interested in studying the impact of land use changes on wildlife populations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens abandoned the state’s collectivized farms, leaving many of the agricultural fields to revert to a more natural state—and opening up new space for animals to live and roam.

“Their forests are regrowing and their wildlands are coming back, which is something we don’t see in many other places on the planet—especially at that magnitude,” says Radeloff.

Radeloff, an expert in using satellite imagery to monitor land use changes, can look at his remote sensing data and see that forests are expanding in Russia. But the images don’t tell Radeloff and Pidgeon much about what’s happening “on the ground” with local wildlife populations. For that, they need to partner with Russian scientists, working with them on their turf.

As an example, while satellite imagery can help identify promising habitat for the reintroduction of European bison into new areas within the Caucasus Mountains, many other factors will determine a herd’s ultimate success.

“We identified an area that looked like good habitat, but the local scientists made it quite clear that this would not work because of the human context,” says Radeloff. “They told us the bison would all be shot there within a week; they’d never survive. That’s the kind of information we need that we cannot learn remotely and that nobody is publishing about in scientific journals.”

That “human context” is a significant factor, even within the nation’s protected areas. Animals are hunted for food by locals and for trophies by affluent sportsmen. In the southern Caucasus Mountains, ibex, a type of wild goat, are killed for their horns, which are used as wineglasses during traditional Georgian wedding ceremonies. The Saiga antelope of the Kalmykia are likewise poached for their horns, which are sold on the Chinese medicine market. These forces must be factored in.

Trips to Russia also enable Radeloff and Pidgeon to develop important scientific relationships. They regularly host Russian conservation scientists in their Madison labs, giving visitors the opportunity to work on short projects that can aid their efforts back home in Russia.

“Both of us are interested in capacity building, particularly in countries where the resources or training may not be quite as comprehensive as it is here in the United States,” says Pidgeon. “These relationships lead to a cross-pollination that benefits both sides as we work to study and support wildlife populations in Russia.”

Costa Rica: New trail in paradise

This past January a group of CALS students found themselves bushwhacking through a dense mountain forest in Costa Rica, crossing paths with monkeys, colorful birds, snakes and strange-looking frogs along the way.

But no worries: They weren’t lost.

As part of a service-learning course offered by the Department of Landscape Architecture, they were scouting out a new hiking trail for the Cloud Forest School, a bilingual, environmentally focused K–11 school located just outside the majestic, fog-shrouded cloud forest reserves of Monteverde and Santa Elena. The reserves are among the most biologically diverse places on Earth, serving as home to more than 2,500 plant species, 400 kinds of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians—and thousands of insects.

“We hiked through the most wild parts of the mountain to collect GPS points of potential new trails,” says Lyn Kim, a landscape architecture senior who spent two weeks in Costa Rica as part of the Cloud Forest Studio course, as it’s called.

CALS students helped plan, map and build a five-kilometer trail through the school’s extensive grounds, which include both pristine and previously harvested cloud forest. The path, which includes resting points of special ecological interest, was designed for Cloud Forest School field trips as well as for the school’s annual fundraiser run. Creating it, however, was just one piece of a much larger effort.

“The long-term goal is to help develop some kind of meaningful forest restoration plan for the property,” says landscape architecture professor Sam Dennis, who co-leads the course along with department chair and professor John Harrington.

“We also want to help support the school’s environmental education efforts so their students can go on to jobs in the local ecotourism industry,” he adds.

Dennis and Harrington made a five-year commit- ment to the school and so far have led two groups of CALS students to conduct work there. In addition to building the trail, students have also started develop- ing classroom curriculum materials, nature guides for the property and interpretive trail signage.

The trips expose CALS students to landscape architecture’s vocational variety. “People tend to think of landscape architecture as putting plants onto landscapes, but that’s very little of what we actually do,” explains Harrington. The course gives students
a taste of environmental restoration work, commu- nity development work, and the creation of outdoor educational spaces with community input.

Kim, for one, was thrilled with her experience last January, and not just because she got to see an active volcano and zipline down the side of a mountain on her day off.

“At school we always design on trace paper and in the computer, but we never get to see our designs built,” she notes. “During our trail-building project, we got to see our work come to life.”

Kazakhstan: Dam monitoring protects water supply

Unpredictable flooding and droughts, which scientists predict will intensify with climate change, elevate the importance of dams for managing and storing water, even in places that normally receive adequate rainfall. Maintaining the world’s existing dams helps ensure that farmers will have the water they need to feed the planet’s burgeoning population.

To aid that effort, graduate students Charles Chang and Andrew Schreiber, both in agricultural and applied economics (AAE), have created software that can quickly and inexpensively determine a dam’s structural integrity using their algorithm and data from easily installed fiber-optic sensors, such as those already in use at the Koksarai Dam in Kazakhstan.

“Our system gives water managers a more cost- effective way to monitor the overall integrity of dams than any other technology,” says Chang. He is col- laborating with a team of engineers who developed the sensors, led by Professor Ki-Tae Chang at South Korea’s Kumoh National University of Technology. The sensors, which measure water seepage through a dam, provide real-time data the researchers are using to locate areas of erosion that could eventually under- mine the dam’s capacity.

“We’re targeting dams in developing countries, most of which are used as reservoirs for agriculture. Many of them have no solid core and are easily moved by high water pressure, or they are older dams that need maintenance,” says Chang. “We can give water managers the information they need to decide whether repairs are required.”

Up to now, notes Schreiber, “Earth dam monitor- ing has required considerable amounts of capital and labor, leaving poorer communities at a loss.”

Chang and Schreiber drew on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team to create their product. The team includes civil engineering professor Chung R. Song of the University of Mississippi and Jesse Holzer, a UW computer science graduate student. AAE professors Tom Rutherford and Corbett Grainger serve as project advisors.

“Some models of dam sustainability measure the effects of sedimentation in the reservoir, but our project goes farther by looking at the erosion factor,” says Chang. “For example, if Kazakhstan were to experience less rainfall due to climate change in the coming years, we would want to maintain a higher reservoir level in the dam for future agricultural use. But we also know that higher water levels can trigger more erosion.”

As economists, Chang and Schreiber want to help governments predict how much they need to invest in a dam to increase its capacity. And because different climate change scenarios can affect both sedimentation and erosion—the main causes of dam failure—the team will model the returns toinvestment in dammaintenance or aban-donment. “What is thebenefit to society tohave that dam rein-forced or allowed to collapse?” Chang asks.

After implementing erosion detection algorithms for earth structures in Korea and Kazakhstan, Chang andSchreiber now collaborate with pH Global,a start-up venture that creates inference algorithms for a variety of geotech- nical public amenities, such as tunnels and dikes.

“A fifth of the world’s population lives in water- scarce regions, and most dams lack monitoring capability,” says Chang. “With our algorithm and sensors, water managers can minimize costs by using less hardware and more software.”

The students may have a viable commercial product on their hands. It has drawn some attention in South Korea and France, Chang says, and several contracts for using it are already in place.