Craig Just: Facilitating Sustainable Communities

Monday, June 30, 2014

What do freshwater mussel habitats, hybrid poplar trees, and off-the-grid toilets have in common? For Iowa NSF EPSCoR researcher Craig Just, the answer is just enough.

As both an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering and assistant faculty research engineer for IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, Just oversees several different projects in addition to those affiliated with Iowa NSF EPSCoR.

“It’s a Venn diagram,” Just says of his research program. Although at first seemingly unrelated, all projects strive, in one way or another, to facilitate sustainable communities at either the macro- or micro-level.

The Just Research Group focuses primarily on nitrogen behavior in the natural environment (cue the nitrogen-consuming mussels and poplars) but also manages the Sustainable Citizen Program, a framework for implementing sustainable practices and discussions in real-world situations, particularly in universities.

UI Professor Craig Just

Sustainability Goes Mobile

A member of the Iowa NSF EPSCoR building sciences team, Just oversaw the implementation of such practices, including automatic blinds and occupancy light sensors, at Columbus Junction High School. He now heads the design of an EPSCoR-funded trailer that has already begun showcasing energy education across the state of Iowa.

“My primary task was to build—and I always put it in quotes—a ‘community laboratory’ for energy efficiency and energy utilization education,” Just says of the Columbus Junction project. He and his team have taken that experience and created a more mobile learning opportunity for the public. They call it the Imagine Energy Traveler.

The Imagine Energy Traveler is housed in an IIHR machine shop on the UI campus but will spend much of the summer on the road, attending events such as the Iowa State Fair and the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Sponsors of the trailer include Iowa NSF EPSCoR, Van Meter Inc., and the Iowa Renewable Energy Association (IRENEW), among others.

Impacting Iowa and Abroad

Although Just has traveled as far as Egypt and Guatemala, he is a born-and-raised Iowan, receiving both his bachelor’s degree and master’s in chemistry from the University of Northern Iowa and Ph.D. in environmental engineering and science from the UI. After serving for years as a laboratory director, he joined IIHR in 2003 and began teaching a few years after. In 2012, he became an official faculty member; however, he admits he was a bit hesitant at first to accept.

“I had these notions that the ultimate products [of being a professor] are these research papers and abstract journals that people like me read,” Just says. “How does that benefit the people I grew up with here in Iowa?”

It was Just’s passion for community engagement that led Iowa NSF EPSCoR Co-Principal Investigator and UI Executive Vice-President and Provost Patrick Barry Butler to request that he join the EPSCoR team. Just currently leads projects in East Chicago, Indiana, and Iowa, where he informs the public about the dangers of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic man-made organic chemicals that are often found in waterways. He has also received UI funding to conduct research of wastewater treatment facilities in hopes that the findings could help small towns in Iowa save money and avoid going bankrupt due to costly wastewater systems. 

Just admits that living in a society where 50 percent of the general public doesn’t believe in climate change and that it’s human derived can make his research projects a bit challenging, especially considering the uncertainty in funding.

“That’s a challenge I’m happy to take on,” he notes.

A Sustainable Future

In 2009, Just was instrumental in adding a Certificate in Sustainability to UI curriculum. He now teaches two undergraduate courses, “Introduction to Sustainability” and “Design With the Developing World,” using much of his own research in creating service-learning lesson plans, including a recent project that challenged students to design a self-sufficient toilet for rural communities in developing countries.

“To get sustainability in there at the level I had originally dreamt of—that’s a pretty big task,” Just says. Currently, Just is attempting to put the Sustainable Citizen program, which is in its third and final year of Iowa Department of Education funding, and its materials into a package that could be useful to anyone. He will be presenting his findings at workshops in Seattle and Boulder in upcoming months.

Just is also the faculty advisor for students working under the International Engineering Service Program and UI U.S. Green Building Council. He has led various trips to Ghana, during which students help to improve drinking water conditions, and he also mentors students in projects such as installing campus rain gardens to reduce storm water runoff.

“I have the best job on the planet for what my skill sets are,” Just says. “I love working here, and I love working with students.”