State DCNR, community explore Penn State Sustainability efforts

Secretary Dunn

Cindy Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, discusses Sustainable Community Collaborative projects with Penn State students involved in the program.  

Credit: Vincent Corso

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State students working with Penn State Sustainability are making an impact in communities across the state and gaining hands-on experience in the field with Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) projects.

The program connects Penn State students, faculty and staff with local communities to address sustainability challenges through an engaged, collaborative effort. Between 2013 and 2023, the SCC has facilitated 405 projects, led by 107 faculty members connecting more than 4,530 students with 125 community partners. The estimated value of these projects is over $2.7 million.

During the fall semester, projects ranged from identifying native plants at Whipple Dam State Park to designing pollinator gardens at a historic mansion near Spruce Creek; creating educational materials for young visitors to a Blair County conservation site; determining best practices for building an inclusive, diverse and collaborative work environment; and more.

The impact of these engaged scholarship projects was on display during a recent Campus and Community Sustainability Expo that was co-hosted by State College Borough and Penn State Sustainability. Community members gathered with students, faculty and stakeholders to discuss the projects that were featured on poster displays.

Special guest Cindy Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the program highlighted how Penn State can impact sustainability in Pennsylvania.

“It is very encouraging to me to see Penn State be such a strong leader in sustainability and preparing the next generation for the real work ahead in all facets of sustainability,” Dunn said. “With Penn State University as the land-grant university in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it does make sense that Penn State leads the way in thinking, applying technology and applying the principles of sustainability. As the students emerging from these programs take their seats in state government and the private sector or the civic sector, their leadership and skills are going to be very important to the future of the commonwealth. The value of this will be felt for decades to come.”

Dunn added that she was impressed by the many different colleges, departments and programs that participate in the SCC, showcasing the many different aspects of sustainability.

“True sustainability happens when it is looked at very broadly that way, and where the disciplines work together toward a common goal. So, I was very impressed with everything I have seen and encouraged about the future when it comes to the workforce,” Dunn said.

Lara Fowler, director of Penn State Sustainability and chief sustainability officer at the University, said the program provides an opportunity for students to put their knowledge to practical use in a way that benefits the community.

“What I love about this program is that it matches community need with student engagement. So, it takes things out of the theoretical and into the real world. It takes it from ‘I am studying this’ to ‘I am applying it,’ and it gives the students real-world experience,” Fowler said.

Leigh Haefner, division head of Education, Human Development and Social Sciences at Penn State Altoona, led a team of elementary education majors who worked with the Blair County Conservation Association to develop lessons for students around features of NatureWorks Park in Hollidaysburg. She said the project provided an opportunity for the future teachers to think about education beyond the classroom setting and to make community connections.

“The students gained that community connection and were able to think about their role as community members and teachers in the future in their local school district. Being able to help, wherever they land. Being able to think about what my community offers me and how do I bridge the classroom and community for families,” Haefner said.

Sarah Gaffney is a graduate student working toward a master’s degree in landscape architecture. She worked on a fall 2023 SCC project to design new playgrounds at Greenwood Furnace State Park.

“This was my first time working with an actual client,” Gaffney said. “The SCC started the connections for us and guided us through the process. It was beneficial getting those hands-on experiences.”

During the expo, Gaffney and other students involved with the program shared her project with interested community members and made connections with other sustainably minded people.

State College Borough has been a longtime partner of the Sustainability Community Collaborative. The program has supported the borough with 96 sustainability projects since 2013, with around 1,000 student participants from 13 different academic colleges. The expo, hosted each semester, is an opportunity to show how valuable the projects are for the community, said Borough Manager Tom Fontaine.

“We look forward to this event twice a year, because it showcases the town and gown collaborations that contribute to making State College and surrounding communities such a special place,” Fontaine said.

Learn how to get involved with Penn State Sustainability here.