Hillside with Missouri River in the background

Students, faculty and grads find innovative ways to mitigate global issues

By Hanna DeLange '18, M.A.

The concept of sustainability is based on the longstanding principle that everything people need for survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on the natural environment. Sustainability strives to solve global issues, such as poverty and hunger, poor sanitation, carbon emission and economic inequalities that hinder our goal to live in productive harmony with the environment that provides everyone and everything air, water and food. It is believed that people should be at the forefront solving these immediate global issues without compromising human, economic and environmental vitality.

As a field of study, sustainability is broad and interdisciplinary. Built upon three pillars—social equity, economic development and environmental protection—scholars study public policies, economics, social sciences, biology and more. Those in sustainability work in natural resource conservation, non-profit organizations, agriculture, politics, health assessment and law, and over the years, there will be more opportunities awaiting them. They are passionate leaders committed to championing a greener, more sustainable future.

At the University of South Dakota, the Department of Sustainability & Environment houses and graduates driven people who have the dedication, skill and forward-thinking ideas to solve the challenges that threaten the world.

“Sometimes people see sustainability as a never-ending list of problems, but the focus of the sustainability program is to think of solutions,” said Meghann Jarchow, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Sustainability & Environment. “We teach our students to use a systems perspective to think about challenges so they understand the broader context surrounding the issues, and we help them think about how they might work to create solutions to the challenges.”

USD students and professors alike are living out the principles and making a difference in their communities, both near and far.

Social Equity

Alexa Kruse ’18, a former student of Jarchow’s, has taken what she learned in the classroom at USD to the other side of the world in New Zealand. For the past nine months, Kruse has been working for the Creation Care Study Program (CCSP), an independent study abroad program, as a student life coordinator in New Zealand’s South Island. The students at CCSP study courses of sustainable community development, Te Reo (the Maori language and culture), New Zealand ecosystems, environmental literature and God and nature in a living-learning community with staff like Kruse and other educators.

Alexa Kruse in New Zealand
Alexa Kruse in New Zealand

Kruse, who double majored in sustainability and biology, said her sustainability degree and the opportunities she took advantage of at USD have prepared her for her work at CCSP.

“The program has given me confidence in researching and gathering information, thinking critically, debating and speaking on issues I would not be able to do without my education,” Kruse explained. “I have practical experience living out sustainability from immersing myself in the Vermillion community and applying what I’ve learned in class to how I live. Since my job in New Zealand has involved living in the community, I have been able to have productive discussions about sustainability in the classroom and at the dinner table—not to mention leading by example.”

Kruse mentioned the three pillars of sustainability as her motivation to work with people and communities.

“Although I studied the environmental sustainability track to complement my biology degree, I found a real passion for social sustainability,” she said. “People are the driving force for change, and there is real hope for change and for our future on this planet.”

Economic Development

Historically, native prairie grasslands covered much of South Dakota; today, the land that once saw expansive prairies has been altered by agriculture and development. Many are trying to restore native prairie to the South Dakota landscape.

In her research, Jarchow explores how prairies can be reincorporated into the landscape and how those who plant native grasses on their land can be incentivized beyond government payments. Additionally, as a board member of EcoSun Prairie Farms, a South Dakota nonprofit that demonstrates sustainable living on restored grassland-produced products, Jarchow has seen the benefits of sustainable farming.

Four cows in a pasture
Research at EcoSun Prairie Farm, where Jarchow serves on the board of directors, demonstrates how farmers and ranchers can make a sustainable living using diverse mixtures of perennial grasses.

“We’re likely not going back to the huge swaths of prairie we used to have, but we don’t need to go back to that to make a big difference,” Jarchow said. “Most of the tallgrass prairie land is privately owned and predominantly used for agriculture. It’s not reasonable to expect farmers and landowners to give up how they make a living to put prairie back in.

“I look at ways to incorporate the prairie into agricultural systems, where people can still make money off the land while also benefiting the environment in ways that we currently don’t value economically."

Integrating prairie grasses reduces erosion, produces hay and seed and provides valuable and sustaining grazing land, as well as habitats for bees and other insects. They are also more resilient and thrive under a wider range of environmental conditions than annual row crops. In the future, prairie could provide income through biofuel, ecotourism and hunting.

Though beneficial to the environment, farmers and landowners may see prairie reintroduction as a risky endeavor in a system that thrives on marketable products.

“The current systems in place encourage farmers to plant corn and soybeans,” said Jarchow. “The first adopters will likely be people who don’t rely on the land as their only source of income. There will have to be more demonstration sites where people can learn more about what prairies are and witness the benefits of prairies."

EcoSun is currently working to develop a demonstration site near Sioux Falls. Jarchow said they hope to start seeding next spring, and she plans to incorporate visits to the site into her curriculum.

Meghann Jarchow
Meghann Jarchow

“Conservation is compatible with people making a living from the land,” said Jarchow. “There are opportunities that exist. EcoSun helps educate the public on what should be asked of policy makers and how they can reintroduce prairie on their land.” As Jarchow noted, policies generate sustainable change. Without policies in place that encourage sustainable development—socially, economically and environmentally—the global issues will persist.

Helping that cause is Maggie Squyer ’17, an assistant planner for the City of Fargo, North Dakota, planning and development department. “A lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis is analyze how well incoming development projects satisfy the landscaping and permeability requirements of existing city codes,” Squyer said. “In instances of disconnect, I work with applicants and developers to find creative solutions to
make their visions come to fruition.”

An Introduction to Public Policy class sparked an interest in Squyer, who also minored in biology and political science, to pursue the policy side of sustainability. Squyer said many people don’t realize how much city codes affect standards of living.

“City codes help the citizens of Fargo by influencing the placement and quality standards of land development,” said Squyer. “The reason this topic is so relevant where I work right now is because Fargo’s Land Development Code (LDC), written in 1998, is about to undergo an evaluation and potential rewrite. A 21-yearold document is being brought into modern times, and I’m excited to be a part of that change.

“The LDC sets the standard for development around the city, so it has a major impact on developers and citizens alike.”

Environmental Protection

As a member of the Vermillion community and a professor in the Department of Sustainability & Environment, Mark Sweeney, Ph.D., is committed to supporting the city and the university in their sustainability efforts.

In his position as a board member of Greening Vermillion, a nonprofit organization with the goal to make Vermillion “the greenest town in South Dakota,” Sweeney is working with the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company, the City of Vermillion and the Missouri Valley Recycling Center to create a recycling and sustainability guide as part of a project funded by a South Dakota Community Foundation Community Innovation Grant.

Mark Sweeney
Mark Sweeney

“We want to educate the public about what sustainability is and also give them all the information they need to know about recycling in Vermillion,” Sweeney said.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Vermillion curbside recycling program, Greening Vermillion plans to distribute the new guide and other educational items this summer.

“We’ll have examples of the recycling process and the importance of recycling,” said Sweeney. “We’ll have information about the Vermillion Area Farmers’ Market and also where people can bring used items. We want people to know how to recycle and how to reuse products as well.

“Sustainability isn’t just about recycling, it’s about using less and being able to reuse items that we already have.” 

Sweeney also helps with USD’s recycling efforts. Though the university uses a different, single stream recycling method than the city does, Sweeny explained that they’re interrelated.

“The more we educate not only the university, but also the community at large about the importance of recycling, it ultimately makes us a more sustainable community—a nice place to live that’s greener than it was before,” Sweeney said.

Educating the public about their surroundings is crucial to environmental protection. People must explore, engage and take action to improve and protect the environment in which they live. Jarchow manages several community outreach programs where students and community members can learn about and engage with the environment right outside their doorstep.

“In most of the core courses in the sustainability program, we do community-based learning projects,” said Jarchow. “Partnering with organizations for service-learning connects our students to the broader community and provides resources to our community.”

One of the events brings all sixth graders from Clay County together with USD students at the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States. The Missouri National Recreational River is a 100-mile stretch that includes portions of Clay County. River Appreciation Day, founded by three Vermillion community members, celebrated its 12th year last fall. While USD students volunteer to chaperone the sixth graders throughout the various educational stations and help coordinate the programming, they also get to learn about the historic river.

Large group of students gather with sixth graders of Clay Country schools for the annual River Appreciation Day event.
Sustainability students have helped with the annual River Appreciation Day event, which brings together all sixth graders in South Dakota's Clay County schools to learn about and celebrate the Missouri River.

“Students get a range of different experiences from the day,” Jarchow said. “Some like working with the sixth graders, others take advantage of the networking opportunities that are available with different agencies and others haven’t been to the river before. River Appreciation Day gets USD students to the river, which many don’t realize is a national park.”

Jarchow has also coordinated a trip to Spirit Mound for Vermillion fourth graders with the Sustainability Capstone course. Similar to River Appreciation Day, the event encourages USD students and the community to interact with the diverse environments in the Vermillion area.

“We have all these local resources and we want people to get out and enjoy them,” Jarchow said. “Spirit Mound has the biggest restored prairie in the area, and it’s a state park that is willing to host educational events. We want youth to feel connected so they come back and encourage other people to visit Spirit Mound.” 

The students learn about the history and geography of Spirit Mound as well as about prairie restoration, and they participate in seeding a part of the prairie.

“In Vermillion, we underuse our natural resources and the beautiful places available to us because not everyone knows they exist or how to engage with them,” said Jarchow. “The more we can bring our students to see places, it helps them to be able to want to go to those places again and to be able to understand other areas like them and to seek them out.

Four USD students helping to paint reminders on a storm drain.
Through the Greening Vermillion organization, USD students paint colorful reminders that anything put down a storm drain in Vermillion flows directly into the river.

"This place-based education is key to bringing change, Jarchow said. “To teach someone about conservation,I can teach about the prairie, which is right outside. If I taught about conservation with the rainforest, an environment so far away from us, it can feel overwhelming and then people don’t know what to do. If it’s a place that people know, they can identify what to do more easily. It is easier for them to feel empowered.”

Listen to an interview with Meghann Jarchow on the USD Credit Hour podcast. 

Listen to an interview with Mark Sweeney on Credit Hour podcast.

Find more Credit Hour podcasts at usd.edu/podcast.