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UNI sustainability project looks to have impact in region

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CEDAR FALLS | University of Northern Iowa students involved in a recently launched sustainability initiative have taken on several projects that could improve the health and viability of the Cedar Valley for decades to come.

And no one is more aware of the scale of the scale and scope of their task than they are.

“If we can prevent disparities ... if we can prevent people from being exposed to the lead or being exposed to the radon or any of that, think of all the suffering we can prevent,” said Julie Grunklee, an intern with the initiative and a UNI student majoring in health promotion.

She was echoed by colleague Nicole Donlin, a UNI senior with three majors, who wants to focus on prevention but also education.

“If you don’t know how to change the environment that you live in, you’re never going to stop getting sick and having problems,” Donlin said.

Grunklee and Donlin are two of the five student interns working on the Provost’s Initiative for Environmental Equity and Resilience, or PIEER, under the guidance of associate professor of health promotion and education Catherine Zeman.

Zeman proposed the project to interim provost Mike Licari last semester and they, along with the students, have been working for the past five months on environmental equity and sustainability issues throughout the Cedar Valley.

Licari said he supported the initiative because he saw it as an opportunity to further the university’s mission on sustainability and was happy to have the passion Zeman brings to the issues surrounding environmental equity.

He said he also liked the opportunity to bring students together for opportunities to learn that take them outside the classroom.

“It provides a unique aspect to student learning that we can provide here at UNI very, very well,” Licari said.

The students, who are getting internship credit for working on the initiative, said they spend about 15 hours a week -- and sometimes more -- to meet the objectives of the project.

They are focused in three areas: research, education and service.

That means they look into issues like how to safely apply insecticides without harming surrounding properties and how to deal with the invasive emerald ash borer in rural communities. But it also means they go to area schools and talk about the in-home dangers of radon, lead and asbestos and how soon-to-be adults can look out for those dangers when they rent apartments or buy homes.

Their work also includes preparing for the second annual UNI Sustainability Conference, which will be from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday at the Maucker Union Ballroom on the UNI campus.

The event will feature opening keynote speaker Robert Ping of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in Portland, Ore., and closing speaker Eric O’Brien, UNI’s sustainability coordinator, who will talk about the strides that have been made on campus toward sustainability.

The PIEER interns, like freshman health promotion major Wynton Karanja, expect to be involved with the initiative throughout their time at UNI, but even the seniors who will leave after this semester expect to both stay involved and keep living more sustainably.

They make clear their passion both for educating those younger than them and for bringing a mindset toward helping people to live healthier, more active lifestyles.

Ethan Pelton and Tyler Canfield, UNI seniors and PIEER interns, said they wanted to get involved specifically to engage the communities that are around them.

Pelton focused on educating younger children on how to “make the healthy choice the easy choice,” while Canfield said he hoped to make a difference for high-schoolers before they enter college life.

“We never had anybody come in and explain this environmental and equity kind of stuff to us,” said Canfield, who grew up in rural Iowa. “I wanted to be that person that goes out to these small schools and just gives them the knowledge to know, ‘Hey, I need to look for radon in a house when I go to college.’”

The UNI students said they will feel they’ve made some difference when they start getting more requests from regional schools and K-12 students who are interested in hearing more about sustainability issues.

Zeman encouraged those interested in hearing a presentation from PIEER to contact her at or at 273-3222. For more information, or to register for the free conference, go to or call 273-3689.


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