June 10, 2009

NSF grant to fund ‘green scholarships’ at SIUC

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale will help train the upcoming generation of environmental experts with a federal grant aimed at students interested in a “green” job.

The so-called “green scholarships” will fund students from various educational backgrounds who are also interested in the environment. The National Science Foundation is funding the four-year, $600,000 program at SIUC. The funding is part of NSF’s “STEM” program, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Karen Renzaglia, associate professor of plant biology and associate dean in the College of Science, Harvey Henson, research project specialist in the geology department and assistant dean in the College of Science and Julia Spears, director of McNair Scholars program, are the principal investigators on the grant.

The scholarships will provide up to $9,000 per year for two years for qualified students, Renzaglia said. The program will target economically disadvantaged students who are finishing up their general studies at community colleges but cannot afford a four-year education.

“These are excellent scholarships that will provide significant support for students,” Renzaglia said. “We really want to reach out to those bright kids who’ve had good training but cannot afford to go on with their education.”

The team is awarding six scholarships for this fall and will award 59 total during the four-year program. Many students will receive two, one-year scholarships, they said.

The scholarships will put the students on track for the expanding job market in “green” industrial positions or academia, Henson said. Many industries are expanding their environmental focus and they need well-trained scientists and engineers to fill those positions.

“We’ll be training students to become environmental experts, to work in industry, academics or state and federal agencies,” Henson said. “The money and the jobs are there.”

Such students likely will come from a scientific or engineering background, but will also have environmental concerns, Renzaglia said. After finishing their community college career, they will attend SIUC and major in any number of areas, including zoology, plant biology, toxicology, chemistry or civil and environmental engineering, among many others.

They also will take specialized classes developed specifically for the program and will have the opportunity to live together at the University’s residence halls in Living-Learning Communities. Such living arrangements encourage students with similar interests and studies to live near one another as means of providing support.

The group is forming partnerships with industry and government agencies, which will provide internships for students in the program.

Students might eventually go to work as a researcher, teacher or in a government agency. Some might work in industry, advising the company on ways to improve its environmental impact or as a public education specialist.

“Every industry now needs somebody who knows about the environment,” Renzaglia said.

Part of the training at SIUC will see the students working with local agencies and industry on environmental issues specific to Southern Illinois, Henson said. A capstone course they are planning will bring in representatives from these groups and put students in the real-world effort to remediate environmental issues.

“We call them backyard opportunities, and that makes sense because we’ve got these local agencies who are here and are working on those types of issues,” Henson said. “So the internships will be right there with them, focused on local problems.”

The faculty members hope to partner with more industries in terms of providing internships and possible employment opportunities for students once they graduate. Renzaglia said she anticipates the scholarships and the program becoming a popular draw for the University.

“I know there are students in all corners of the state who might not know the opportunity here for them,” she said. “It’s a wonderful chance for them to further their education here and work on environmental issues.”