The University of Iowa recently 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 fall 2017 and will train roughly 50 Master of Science 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,” said 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 said 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 anywhere from one to two semesters, depending on whether the trainee is a masters 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,” said Associate Professor David Cwiertny, lead 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.”

Scherer said the challenges facing underserved communities aren’t just technical but also economic, social, and political in nature. Unfortunately, she said, 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 they tend to focus solely on water quality in primarily urban environments.

By contrast, she said the new UI graduate program will equip a new, more diverse generation of water sustainability professionals, including under-represented 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.

Additional co-principal investigators on the grant include Eric Tate, assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and College of Engineering faculty members and IIHR research engineers Craig Just and Gabriele Villarini. Senior personnel on the project team include UI faculty members Kelly Baker, David Frazier, Liz Hollingworth, Witold Krajewski, and Jerry Schnoor.

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world. More at http://research.uiowa.edu, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover.

Photo: 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.