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Upper Mississippi Center

ENVR 100 students
ENVR 100 students get instructions from Dr. Michael Reisner before starting a visual survey in Davenport, Iowa, as part of a project involving lead-based paint.

The Upper Mississippi Center mobilizes Augustana’s faculty and students to help communities solve social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Communities sometimes lack the resources to develop and implement innovative solutions to sustainability challenges. Augustana students and faculty have the skills and knowledge but often lack real-world settings to put their expertise to work.

These sustainability challenges create opportunities for students to learn how to tackle and solve complex, controversial 21st-century problems. The UMC brings these groups together.

The center integrates knowledge and perspectives from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to create solutions as students work with community members.

Since 2013, the UMC has created high-impact learning experiences across campus with community-based research projects, project-based learning experiences for existing courses, internships, and service-learning experiences.

These experiences:

  • Are community-identified and driven problems that focus on an economic, social, or environmental sustainability problems
  • Are action-oriented and try to move towards solving the problem
  • Require authentic collaboration with community partners and stakeholders
  • Create opportunities for students to make a difference

Sustainable Working Landscapes Initiative

The Sustainable Working Land Initiative (SWLI) is the centerpiece of the UMC’s efforts to build learning partnerships that enhance the value of a liberal arts education by solving challenges facing communities. The model is a one- or two-year partnership between Augustana and a city/county partner, matching existing courses and other learning experiences (independent research, internships, etc.) with community-identified and driven sustainability problems.

The SWLI enables cities and counties to achieve their economic, social, and environmental sustainability goals, while allowing students to learn through real-world problem-solving. Modeled after the Sustainable Cities Year Program at the University of Oregon, Augustana's SWLI is the only such program at an undergraduate institution.

SWLI asks communities to identify their most pressing social, economic, and sustainability challenges. It builds enduring relationships between Augustana and the partner community. 

The center's current partner is Scott County, Iowa, for the second academic year. The project is to assist Scott County in identifying homes with lead-based paint, which can cause serious health issues, particularly among children.

    Read more about this project

     home lead-testing kits
    Students put together home lead-testing kits in June for the college's Sustainable Working Landscapes Initiative project with Scott County, Iowa. The project is identify homes with lead-based paint, which can cause serious health issues.

    Other Sustainable Working Landscapes Initiatives:

    Clinton Iowa (2015-16 academic year)

    The foundation for each course-based project is a scope of work that is jointly drafted by the community partner, participating faculty member(s), and UMC.

    The projects involved more than 337 students in more than 22 courses mentored by 17 faculty from various departments.

    The students completed 15 projects, including:

    • Completing a survey of city employees to understand their satisfaction with working for the city and identifying strategies for recruiting and retaining employees
    • Developing an Urban Forest Management Plan
    • Assessing the feasibility of expanding public transportation opportunities and expanding bike routes and trails
    • Completing an audit of the Parks and Recreation Department revenue streams to improve long-term financial sustainability and expand the breadth of programming
    • Creating an interactive way-finding inventory of community cultural and historic attractions and other amenities to enhance visitor use
    • Assessing citizen attitudes and needs via a community survey to help the city better understand how to improve services and develop a communications plan to enhance lines of communication with stakeholders
    • Completing a video oral history project to document the Clinton Corn Company strike, a major event for community and regional economy with legacy effects today. Students presented findings at Gateway Historical Conference in Clinton, IA on April 23, 2016.
    • Working with businesses and non-profits to develop plans to address financial and/or marketing challenges
    • Developing a brochure describing the resources available to small-business owners
    • Completing a stormwater study and evaluation of stormwater management programs to reduce impact of combined stormwater-sewage flows on downstream water quality
    • Analyzing the feasibility of expanding public transportation (busing)
    • Assessing downtown parking limitations

    Scott County (spring 2016-present)

    In the spring of 2016, UMC entered into a two-year partnership with the Scott County Health Department (SCHD). Since 2000, more than 1,600 children have been poisoned by lead in Scott County Iowa, a rate that is four times the national average and two times the state average. The annual number of children poisoned has remained relatively constant over the past two decades. Thirty-seven (37) children were poisoned in 2016 alone.

    The SCHD submitted a proposal to be the next SWLI partner with Augustana College to try a more proactive, preventative approach to solving the lead poisoning problem.

    The goal was to design and implement an approach that would protect the community’s most vulnerable children by identifying homes with the highest risk of lead exposure and eliminating the lead contamination before a child is poisoned. The partnership has three goals:

    1. Identify the homes with the highest risk of lead exposure
    2. Evaluate and identify alternative local funding that matches the scale of the problem (i.e. can fund abatement/remediation in the highest risk housing)
    3. Build the public-private coalition of community state and local governments, non-profits, businesses, and leaders necessary to advance a proactive, preventative lead poisoning program.

    The SCHD made substantial progress on all three goals for the partnership during the first year because of the work of more than 166 students completing seven course-based projects and six related Senior Inquiry research projects.

    Read more about this project


    These partnerships allow the UMC to partner with small rural towns that do not have the capacity to do more than one project at a time. Last year, the UMC partnered with the City of DeWitt, Iowa. 

    Thirty-two students from Dr. Chris Strunk’s Urban and Transportation (GEOG 325) and Urban Design and Planning (GEOG 423) courses evaluated DeWitt’s commercial zoning codes and provided recommendations to update them.

    Students also provided the city with a summary of best practices of commercial zoning codes and ordinances used by similar Iowa and Midwestern cities. 

    Community-based projects

    Sustainable Urban Watershed Research Project

    In spring of 2013, the UMC initiated a project in partnership with the cities of Rock Island and Moline to assess the ecological health of 13 urban watersheds that are a dominant feature of landscape.

    The UMC led an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students. It established 35 sites that were sampled for a wide range of water quality parameters in 2013-2014. The purpose of this project is to provide decision-makers with knowledge necessary to more effectively conserve and restore these urban ecosystems.

    Sustainable Urban Forest Research Project

    Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) was first discovered in southwest Rock Island in fall of 2013. EAB is an invasive beetle that can devastate entire populations of ash trees. Larvae burrow into the tree and feed on the inner back, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients and eventually killing the tree. 

    Ash trees make a significant component of the urban forest canopy providing shade, beautifying neighborhoods and yards, capturing stormwater, reducing noise and air pollution, etc. 

    In summer of 2014, Augustana UMC partnered with Rock Island Public Works and Parks and Recreation Department to begin planning for the EAB invasion. Three Augustana students worked as interns with Public Works Department to inventory more than 7,000 trees in city right-of-way trees. Four UMC interns completed an inventory of nearly 2,000 trees in city parks. 

    The combined efforts provided an inventory of all city-owned trees; the first step in the city’s effort to develop an urban forest and EAB management plan.

    In a related project with Rocky Island County private forest owners, funded by new faculty grants for Dr. Michael Reisner and Dr. Tierney Brosius, the UMC assessed the understory and overstory composition, diversity, and structure of urban riparian forests across 39 sites. 

    A closely related study is examining the diversity of carabid beetles, an important indicator of overall ecosystem health, across these same forest sites.

    This information will better inform the conservation and restoration decisions necessary to maintain these ecosystems. It also will allow cities to better assess how urban forests may respond to EAB invasion.