UI Wins $3 Million Grant to Launch Water Sustainability Graduate Program

By Rebekah Tilley and Andrea Zeek
UI Strategic Communication

The University of Iowa has received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) grant to develop a Sustainable Water Development graduate program.

Located in the UI College of Engineering, the program will launch in the fall of 2017 and will train about 50 master's and doctoral students. Funding for these trainees will be provided by the NRT grant, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant from IIHR­–Hydroscience & Engineering, and grants from program faculty.

This innovative graduate program will train a new generation of water sustainability professionals to address the tangle of water, food, and energy challenges facing resource-limited communities, which include rural, often agricultural-based communities, as well as poor urban centers and developing countries. It is the only NRT-funded training program of its kind in Iowa.

“With over 85 percent of Iowa's land and economy used for agricultural, Iowa is the perfect place to develop a training program for professionals to address the water issues coupled with food and energy in rural environments,” says engineering professor and Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Executive Officer (DEO) Michelle Scherer, a co-principal investigator on the NRT grant. “Students in our new program will be able to tailor their program of study to meet the needs of a vulnerable community.”

Scherer says an important component of the new graduate program will be a community-based internship or training experience facilitated by a UI faculty member. The experience would last one or two semesters, depending on whether the trainee is a master's or doctoral student.

As an institution, the UI has a strong commitment to food, energy, and water sustainability research. It is home to the Environmental Engineering and Science graduate program, ranked in the top 10 among public universities by U.S. News & World Report; the Iowa Flood Center; and the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities.

Housed in the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and world-renowned IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering, the Sustainable Water Development program curriculum will take full advantage of these and other UI campus resources in engineering, business, education, policy, law, public health, geography, ecology, and informatics. The program is designed to prepare students for academic and non-academic careers, allowing them to choose from a variety of training paths, including professional engineer, entrepreneur, researcher, and professor.

A graduate certificate in Sustainable Water Development also will be offered to all graduate students at the UI.

“The grant represents a new paradigm in graduate research training, rooted in experiential and service learning, and emphasizing professional development skills that will promote graduate student placement in a wide range of careers after completion of their degree,” says David Cwiertny, associate professor and principal investigator on the grant. “The subject matter, development of sustainable food, energy, and water resources, is also highly innovative, representing a new area of educational focus at UI that also aligns with current national priorities in resource development.”

Additional co-principal investigators include Craig just, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant faculty research engineer at IIHR; Gabriele Villarini, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate faculty research engineer at IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering; and Eric Tate, sssistant professor and director of graduate studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Just also is coordinator of the College of Engineering sustainability programs.

Scherer says the challenges facing underserved communities aren’t just technical but also economic, social, and political in nature. Unfortunately, she says, current national graduate-level training in relevant STEM fields doesn’t adequately prepare water sustainability professionals to meet this web of challenges, in part because it tends to focus solely on water quality in primarily urban environments.

By contrast, she says, the new UI graduate program will train a new, more diverse generation of water sustainability professionals, including underrepresented minorities and women, to look at each situation individually and apply solutions specific to each community.

The NSF Research Traineeship program is designed to encourage the development of new, scalable models for STEM graduate training that ensure that graduate students develop the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed to pursue a range of STEM careers.

UI College of Engineering graduate student Lee Hauser, left, works with an undergraduate researcher examining mussels to study water quality in the Iowa River. File photo by Tim Schoon.