UW News

May 24, 2016

Chickens on campus and a mood shift at EPA: Relevant projects are nature of environmental studies capstone

UW News

moving a new chicken coop at uw farm.

UW Farm manager Sarah Geurkink, left, and environmental studies student Mallory Culbertson move a new chicken coop built by Saltbox Designs at the farm located at the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture.Amy Hughes/University of Washington

When UW senior Phoebe Reid interviewed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an internship, she mentioned in passing that she was a life coach, in addition to her undergraduate work in environmental studies.

A few days later she got a call from the agency, saying they had a different internship in mind for Reid that would leverage her broad skillset and help them tackle a mounting conundrum — how to help employees stay energized and satisfied when their work as environmental professionals often defaults to doom-and-gloom scenarios.

When Reid accepted the internship as part of her UW Environmental Studies capstone experience, she found out that the EPA’s Region 10, based in Seattle, has the lowest job satisfaction rating among all of the agency’s regional offices. Finding ways to change that became the focus for Reid’s internship, and she will deliver a final report with recommendations as well as a workshop for employees on gaining resiliency.

“There had been a decline in morale at the EPA, and now it’s part of a conversation that’s happening more widely,” Reid said. “I was focused on, given that satisfaction could be better, what can you do to increase that among employees?”

Reid, along with fellow students in her cohort of environmental studies majors, will present her project and research findings at a symposium May 25 from the three-course capstone experience. Every environmental studies major must complete the capstone course sequence, which includes an internship, research project and final presentation.

“We think of this program as a win-win for everyone,” said Sean McDonald, a lecturer in environmental studies who leads the capstone courses. “It gives students the opportunity to get out into the workforce and test the skills they’ve gained on the university campus. For our host organizations, they gain interns who can infuse enthusiasm and bring new skills and ideas.”

This cohort’s symposium is open to the public. The event includes a mix of student presentations, from 1:30-4:30 p.m. in the Alder Hall auditorium, as well as a poster session in Wallace Hall from 4:35-5:30 p.m. Research topics range from environmental policy and sustainability to advocacy, outreach and education. Here are a few of the talks:

  • Helping hens: How chickens can empower women and help create a more sustainable food system
  • Barriers to waste diversion in hospitals
  • Smart sustainability indicators for small communities
  • Millennials’ integration in environmental advocacy and legislative action
  • Off-leash dogs: A study of behavior, threats to health, and public perceptions
  • Let the green games begin: Analyzing environmental impact data to obtain sustainability in sports
  • Pharmaceutical waste streams: Current pitfalls and possible solutions

The environmental studies capstone shifted about five years ago from being solely an academic project to focusing on launching students into environmental and sustainability careers. Instead of completing a hefty research paper, the courses pair the academic component with job preparedness skills. Students write a shorter paper and also learn practical skills such as crafting resumes, job interviewing, networking, and communicating clearly through memos, social media and blogging.

Students complete their internships during the second quarter, then reconvene in the final quarter to focus on writing and presentations. Each student is required to turn in a report or analysis to their host organization, and often students’ recommendations get adopted by agencies and become the basis for additional work, McDonald said.

“One of the things I stress to my students is the organizations really value the work the students put in,” he said. “We’ve had students do work for agencies that has developed into policies.”

Some students are paired with departments or groups within the UW for their internships, including senior Mallory Culbertson, who worked with UW Farm to lay the foundation for bringing chickens to campus. In addition to writing a chicken-keeping handbook for the farm, Culbertson analyzed the role of chickens in agriculture and the modern food system. From her literature review and research, she found that chickens can boost women’s role in agriculture in developing countries in interesting and surprising ways.

“Urban agriculture will always be something I’ll practice and take interest in,” she said. “It’s really powerful to be able to pull information from geography, GIS, biology and chemistry classes together to get a good understanding of your project. I think the true root of environmental studies is just that — interdisciplinary.”


For more information about the capstone, contact McDonald at psean@uw.edu or follow him on Twitter: @pseanmc. All of the project abstracts are available here.