IUN professor gets her students environmentally conscious
By Karen Caffarini For Sun-Times Media
Inspiring influence: Indiana University Northwest professor Ellen Szarleta (center) talks to her students, including Chuck Hughes and Jennifer Dennison, about environmental laws and policies during the class she teaches in Management Science for Public Affairs. | Mary Compton ~ Sun-Times Media
Ellen Szarleta developed a passion for the environment through her father, a biology teacher, and a tree-planting project they worked on together while she was still a child living in rural New York.
“We got the trees from the state conservation department — 1,000 little seedlings. We had 1,000 holes to dig for 1,000 trees,” recalled Szarleta, now a professor at Indiana University Northwest.
“Thirty years later, we have a forest surrounding us.”
A nice CURE
Today, Szarleta is instilling her own love for the environment to her students and others in Northwest Indiana through her classes, projects she has spearheaded and her position as interim director of IUN’s Center for Regional and Urban Excellence (CURE).
CURE is an umbrella organization for several other initiatives, such as Northern Indiana Consortium for the Environment and the Non-Profit Institute, which provides education, research and technical assistance in several areas — including the environment, arts and senior issues — to local non-profit groups. CURE also supports faculty through funded research fellowships to advance studies of regional relevance.
Szarleta said while the region has several environmental challenges, these challenges represent opportunity. She said the biggest obstacles are not having enough knowledge and learning how to collaborate to solve the problem.
“We’re making progress by taking small steps. The projects will make a big difference,” Szarleta said.
Gardens and parks
One of her class projects is spearheading a community garden on campus in collaboration with the city of Gary. In the class, students worked on developing the garden, built and filled garden boxes and reached out to nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity to adopt some of those boxes.
”Students took care of the garden all summer and harvested it in the fall. We made community connections,” Szarleta said.
She said students learned about healthy foods, the process of growing food and about rain barrels. Participating organizations and people on campus were urged to pick the vegetables they wanted.
Another project that both undergraduate and graduate students are working on is the restoration of Buffington Park in Gary. Szarleta said the project, which provides youth leadership skills and knowledge, is a collaboration of CURE, the Bridget C. Kelly Youth Foundation and the Barden Foundation.
She said the project started last summer with community clean-ups in the city. In the fall, students met with Barden Foundation board members to learn about the business aspect and leadership skills. A history professor told them about the history of Gary and its parks.
The students acquired knowledge that is useful in park restoration, Szarleta said.
She also has a plan in place for creating a central source of information for all envirnonmental-related events taking place in the region. Szarleta said she hopes to get funding for the project.
Helping to create policy
She said projects like these demonstrate to people that groups — large or small — can make a difference and seeing that difference helps bring people together. She added, however, that while some environmental projects show immediate results, others, like her own tree-planting experience, may not show change for a number of years.
The environmental laws have been in place since the 1970s, she said as another example.
Szarleta — who has a Ph.D. in natural resource economics from the University of Wisconsin, a law degree from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s degree in political science — also teaches students about the environment through her various classes, which include environmental law, environmental mediation, environmental policy and economics.
She said she teaches students how federal laws guide state and regional policies. For instance, she asks students why they need to have their vehicles’ emissions tested.
“I get various answers, but I tell them they are the result of federal laws. They can see how those laws impact their lives,” she said.
She said students have strong interests in local topics and the environment.
Szarleta also is co-director of the Northern Indiana Consortium for the Environment. Through NICE she worked with stakeholders to advance environmental projects. She received two collaborative research faculty fellowships that were funded by the Lilly Foundation and awarded by the center. Her most recent fellowship grant enabled Szarleta to work with the city of Gary on reducing toxics in the community.
She said as interim director of CURE, one of her key initiatives is to build the program in the next few years, cultivating new community relationships to develop more projects of regional significance.