PSU students win $75,000 grant at Sustainability Expo

Two Portland State graduate students and their faculty adviser secured a $75,000 award at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., last week for their work on a web site that guides K-12 students through the process of creating and designing sustainability projects for their schools.

Michelle Guthrie and Kristen Lans, along with faculty adviser Pramod Parajuli from the education department, were given the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity, and Planet award for the group’s conceptualization of the Whole Systems, Integrated Site Design for Education (WISE) web site. Portland-based design company Maglab aided the group with the web site’s construction.

“We wanted to create a tool that was easy for students to use, incorporated cutting edge ideas, and fostered a true understanding of sustainability in young people,” Guthrie said.

The team also received a $1,000 prize from the Youth Council on Sustainable Science and Technology. They relied on input from students when building the web site to ensure that it was kid-friendly.

“We actually had students grade us on content, usability and overall design,” Lans said. “I think they enjoyed not only learning, but also playing a role in the project.”

The team mascot, “Eco the Owl,” who was named by children that worked on the project, walks the students step by step through the sustainability process. From mapping out the school and its resources to tallying the results, Eco is working with the children through every step, making the process seem like a game.

At the end, a sustainability project is chosen based on which of the five categories is in the direst state at the students’ school: plants and garden systems, energy systems, native habitat systems, pollution prevention systems and built systems. The site’s 32 sustainability projects range from building a greenhouse to installing bicycle racks.

The WISE project has already been implemented in a few schools around Oregon, like classrooms at Jackson Elementary School in Portland, Waldo Middle School in Salem and Hood River Middle School.

Parajuli said the $75,000 grant will help expand the group’s project. The group plans to “build on the momentum already within PSU,” before moving to statewide and then to a nation-wide augmentation, Parajuli said. Their final step will be to present their sustainability project to the United Nations for use in global south countries, particularly Nepal and Ecuador.

WISE will be attending several conferences this year to promote the group’s work. They will also be giving $35,000 of their grant away in 13 “mini-grants” to competing schools.

“Our hope is that the mini-grant competition will set the wheel in motion for the self-sustaining use of the web site,” Lans said. “We want to draw a large pool of users to not only access all of the technical, funding and organizational resources we have pooled and organized within the web site, but also to add their own knowledge of ‘what works’ in sustainability, education and design.”

The WISE team will be counting on some volunteer help. Maglab, the site construction company, was paid for a portion of their work, but also donated some time to the project. Lans said the team was originally looking for another PSU student to get involved.

“After a few months of this not working out, we just put up an ad on Craigslist,” she said. “We would still love to have some PSU students on the web development or any other areas of the project. The more interdisciplinary the team, the better.”