University of St. Thomas Campus News
It’s a classic question students pose: How am I going to use this in the real world? Thirty-seven courses that have worked with the St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership (SCP) are providing students with an answer.
SCP is a two-year-old program within the Office of Sustainability Initiatives that develops partnerships with cities
and government entities to integrate city-identified sustainability projects into existing St. Thomas courses across disciplines.
“Often, being in school, we get in this synthesized world where you think everything revolves around this campus. Working on a real-world problem has gotten me out and expanded my view of what this education is actually for,” said Will Goodwin, an economics major. His economics class last spring worked with the City of Delano to address potential energy savings. “We’re working on problems that are actually benefiting people every day.”
Delano is one of several partners that have worked with SCP; so far, the program has brought together courses from 18 different disciplines and tied into 40 different projects.
“To see the diversity of projects over time … it demonstrates the multidisciplinary nature of these problems that cities have,” said Maria Dahmus, Office of Sustainability Initiatives assistant director and the main coordinator of SCP.
Fitting together the puzzle pieces
Starting in fall 2015, Dahmus began seeking out cities and partners – specifically smaller cities and government entities with limited staffing – that needed help advancing their sustainability goals. SCP works with three or four partners at a time and, as the partners determine what their needs are, Dahmus works with them to find faculty who can adapt the projects into their course.
Part of SCP’s dynamic capability is in its flexibility. Projects can have deliverables from just one unit during one semester, or they can last several semesters and have students build on prior work.
“We determine collaboratively between what the partner and faculty needs. The idea is that these projects fit seamlessly into existing courses … to provide students an opportunity to apply what they’re learning to a city and experience what it’s like to be innovative problem-solvers, doing applied research that will be applied by the city,” Dahmus said. “It’s kind of like this big puzzle, moving pieces around and seeing how they can fit together to maximum benefit.”
With three semesters’ worth of projects complete, the benefits are piling up, including in external recognition: The City of Elk River recently received the 2017 Outstanding City Partner Award from the Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) Network. Elk River has been a partner with SCP from the beginning, and over a year and a half completed more than a dozen projects: St. Thomas engineering students designed a solar-powered picnic table; geographical information systems students executed a bike route analysis; environmental problem-solving students designed a green roof; and conservation biology students examined how climate change is affecting the city’s trees.
“[SCP] has helped us achieve some initiatives that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish ourselves for years, if ever,” said Kristin Mroz, Elk River’s environmental technician and SCP partnership liaison. “Not only does the city gain valuable data and practical applications, but we also get to aid the next generation of university students in gaining real-world expertise. It’s a win-win, and we couldn’t be more honored for the opportunity.”
Along with Delano and Elk River, SCP also has partnered with Big Lake; Freshwater Society; Metropolitan Council; Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MSWO); Projects Linking Art, Community and Environment; and Tiny Footprint Coffee. Projects have included a biology class exploring potential uses for coffee chaff, a byproduct of coffee roasting; a social work class helping the MSWO model a guide for outreach with culturally diverse populations; a communication journalism course developing marketing materials to recruit master water stewards; an environmental studies course conducting research on the urban tree canopy to inform the Metropolitan Council’s work; a psychology course researching how to create a better public park experience for community members of all ages; and a systems analysis and designs class creating an app for master water stewards.
“There is not a contribution that’s too small if it’s important for the city,” said Dahmus, who explained that one of the key components of building project plans is the partner showing faculty and students how the work will be implemented.
St. Thomas, of the community
Faculty and students who have engaged with SCP have gained a deeper appreciation for what their education can do in their communities, not just in the classroom.
“We’re learning more about what the issues are regionally and locally, and how can we plug ourselves into these as academics. And how can our students see these as real issues and their complexities?” said Camille George, associate vice provost for global and local engagement. “It’s really part of our strategic mission to get our students thinking about global problems, local problems, more nuanced issues than just looking at something through a specific discipline lens.”
“It was interesting to be making a difference in the community, not just for a grade in the class,” said Ashley Brundrett, an environmental science major. “The real-life applications of these projects, we’re making a difference.”
The proof of that is all over: Last year, students from Monica Hartmann and Matthew Kim’s economic courses presented their research to Delano’s city council: They figured out how the city could save nearly $750,000 in energy over the next decade.
“[This is a] phenomenal thing of the future. When you look at what the cost savings are, from the initial investments, and you don’t even have to do it all at once, there’s huge value to this,” said Dale Graunke, mayor of Delano. “This is a program that could be ongoing throughout [St. Thomas] and it would be phenomenal.”
Graunke’s thoughts are already in action: The SCP is continuing to develop more projects for the upcoming year; has set its sights on expanding the number of students doing independent research on SCP projects; is developing an initiative to rally community discussion about sustainability through art; is expanding the number of partnerships on St. Thomas’ own campus; and is creating transferable tool kits for cities to use research findings from past projects.
“The world is bigger than St. Thomas. There are places out there than can really benefit from the things they’re learning in their classes. It really helped the students know that what they’re learning has those benefits, has that application,” said Kim, who along with Hartmann won the St. Thomas 2017 Curricular Innovation in Sustainability Award. “Educating students to think critically, act wisely and work skillfully – the Sustainable Communities Partnership really, really made my life a lot easier for incorporating those things into my course.”
Please remember in your prayers father James Stromberg, 90, Ph.D., who died June 19. He graduated from St. Thomas in 1950 and taught philosophy here from 1957-2002, chairing the department for several years over that time.
Dr. Gary Atkinson, a professor in St. Thomas’ Philosophy Department, remembered Stromberg as a “especially gentle and kind” on the day he was hired in 1980.
“After I got to know him better I discovered a man remarkable for his wit and generosity,” Atkinson said. “Later I came to recognize him as a man of deep erudition and intelligence, possessing one of the most incisive intellects I have ever encountered. Those who were blessed to know him in his priestly capacity found him a true father, a caring shepherd, a loving and dutiful son of the church.”
An all-night vigil will be held beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, June 23 at the Church of the Holy Family, 5900 W. Lake St., St. Louis Park, MN, 55416, with a Mass of Christian burial at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 24, at Interment at Resurrection Cemetery, Mendota Heights, MN. Donations can be sent to Cretin-Derham Hall High School, 550 Albert St. S., St. Paul, MN, 55116, or donor’s choice.
Senior Andrew Ryan pointed to different parts of the FarmBot and rover systems he helped build in the St. Thomas Owens Science Hall greenhouse and Facilities and Design Center, and wished for more time.
“There’s always so much more I want to do,” Ryan said. “And so little time.”
Despite his lament, Ryan has been working on the ongoing project up to 40 hours a week this summer. He started with the School of Engineering’s Precision Agriculture Research Team in November, working 10 hours a week.
“It’s really nice working full time. I was thinking a lot throughout the [spring] semester that it would be really nice to be able to focus on just this one thing, and with only 10 hours a week you can only really touch on certain things,” Ryan said. “These things take a lot of time to do.”
“These things” involve developing autonomous, smart rovers to support the world’s growing agriculture needs, and many students and faculty across the Engineering, Biology, Chemistry and Physics departments are contributing to the project.
“I really like where the project is going, the idea behind it. I see the need for it,” Ryan said. “If we can improve our agriculture it’s going to help with a lot of problems. It’s a really cool project and I’m excited to be part of it.”
During his two-plus years at St. Thomas, engineering professor Cheol-Hong Min said he has seen the immense value of students contributing to ongoing research at the university, especially with such a large project as this.
“It’s just a tremendous help. They learn while working on this type of large-scale project the process of how we actually work and do research, and do engineering at companies. They learn and we work with the students, guiding them through the whole process. As a result they become better engineers,” he said. “They have the skills, now they’re learning new tools and implementing things. As they go out and research different types of products or implementing things, they also bring new information back to us in a weekly group meeting. There are 12, 13 people in there each week, throwing ideas together. The students do a great deal moving this project forward.”
Ryan has contributed specifically by working with the electrical needs of the physical objects themselves, everything from designing, building and installing a port for the rover’s microprocessor, to wiring different aspects of the unit. He also built the actual FarmBot system in the greenhouse with pro bono engineering consultant and principal of Prescription Robotics Scott Morgan; so, Ryan gained valuable experience working alongside a mechanical engineering professional. Finally, Ryan also is supporting fellow student worker sophomore Peter Farley on software development. Throughout this, Ryan has seen his own skills grow alongside the project.
“I just recently looked back at some of the first things I did on the project, and I just want to throw them out. It’s amazing to see the progress,” he said. “If I can stick with something like this, because I know it so well now, it will be great to help make it as perfect as I can [before graduating]. I’m glad I have some time to do that.”
As Michael Scham is quick to point out, it’s not difficult to understand the appeal of tango: the elegant, smooth movements; the sensual eye contact; the romantic draw of two bodies swirling around each other. For many, tango begins and ends on the dance floor.
Not so for Scham: The St. Thomas Spanish professor has transformed his passion for tango into not only a beloved hobby but also a dedicated area of academic research and teaching. Scham also met his fiancée tangoing, and she gave birth to their son last fall in Vienna.
“I just felt an immediate connection to the music,” Scham said of his first time watching tango in Buenos Aires nine years ago. “Just seeing people dance made an impression on me; people who would never make an impression on you walking down the street, but when they started dancing they had this elegance and charm. I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to do.’”
Two years later, Scham began taking lessons in the Twin Cities and has been dancing and studying tango ever since. His ongoing work is about the lyrics of tango songs, which “forms a poetic tradition that goes back to medieval Spain, which is my field. My current research project is on the literary context of tango lyrics all the way back to 14th century Spain,” Scham said.
“It’s a fun research project. It’s nice to combine a nonacademic passion with academic research, which is ideal in some ways,” Scham added. “It’s also a great topic for nonacademic talks. I’ve given talks on this in four or five different countries already, sometimes in academic settings and sometimes not. A lot of people are interested in tango … so to give the general public an idea of the lyrics and topics with illustrations and audio is an appealing topic for a lot of people.”
Scham’s research has taken him back to Buenos Aires for month- and four-month-long stays to dance and do research. He and his fiancée continued dancing until about the last six weeks of her pregnancy, he said, and while on parental leave in Vienna recently they danced again for the first time since their son was born. Scham also gave a talk on the figure of Don Quixote as a figure in tango lyrics.
“It really adds a nice dimension to [teaching] that makes it more relevant and real in some ways for the students, who may often see literature and poetry as abstract,” Scham said. “They see this as related to something that people do and has a living tradition in a palpable way, which can be harder when you see it just on the page.”
I caught up with Scham shortly after he returned for the start of spring semester and asked him some of our favorite Humans of St. Thomas questions while also picking his brain about a life of tango.
What’s one thing you cannot live without?
Friends and being engaged socially. That’s related to tango too.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
I would just say my son. That’s what I’m most grateful for.
If you had the option to time travel, would you go forward or backward? And how far would you go?
I don’t think I would dare to go forward right now. It would be fascinating to go backward and see some figures one admires. It would be good to go to a time that still has anesthesia and antibiotics. It would be fascinating to go back to Renaissance Spain, but that would be dangerous as well. To walk the same streets where Cervantes was. … Early modern period, that’s my area, but all these beautiful landscapes you see evoked in paintings that always make me feel a little sad and nostalgic. That was part of their theme even then: the loss of great beauty in nature. That would have a great draw.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Jane’s Addiction at Seattle Lollapalooza in 1991, I believe.
Describe your ideal day.
It’s kind of mundane: After waking up from a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast with family, doing some reading, then going for a nice walk together, bike ride or a hike. Then having a good meal together with some good wine, good conversation.
What are the coolest shoes you’ve ever owned?
My dos-por-cuatro tango shoes are very cool. They’re from this place in Buenos Aires, dos-por-cuatro, two-by-four, is the brand because that was the time signature for a lot of early tango, although a lot of them are four-by-four now. I have a very cool pair of shoes from there. Tango dancers become obsessed with shoes – men as well, not just the women.
Bridget Nelson ’87 remembers the dawn of her comedy career. It was nothing to laugh about. In fact, tears were shed.
Just months after graduating with a degree in communication and theater from St. Thomas, Nelson acknowledged to herself and her family that she simply wasn’t built for the desk job she’d landed as a buyer for Donaldson’s department store.
“I called my dad, crying, and told him, ‘I’m miserable. I think I want to be a stand-up comedian,’” she recalled.
Like most parents who have invested their hard-earned desk-job dollars on their child’s education, Nelson’s dad was lukewarm to her plans. (To be fair, her father actually was a nightclub owner who dabbled in stand-up comedy and once was mayor of Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.) Nelson followed her gut anyway, throwing herself into the local stand-up comedy scene, learning to write sketches through trial and error. Ever since, her life has been, more or less, a living monument to the adage that suggests you follow your bliss and let the rest fall into place.
Nelson is not only a stand-up comedy veteran but she also can count herself among the Peabody Award-winning writing team behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a TV series that made “riffing” (witty commentary spoken at well-timed moments during a movie) famous. The Sci-Fi Channel’s cancellation of the show in 1999 did not stop Nelson from staying the course of her calling – bringing joy to people through comedy, ministry and performance.The unbearable lightness of realizing you’re a comedian
Nelson’s self-revelation in her early 20s didn’t arise from the vacuum of outer space.
“I always knew deep down that I wanted to perform,” she said. Proof of her comedic inklings can be traced to a foretelling comment on her sixth-grade report card: “Bridget is scatterbrained but delightful and refreshing,” declared her teacher.
At St. Thomas, she unwittingly honed her stand-up comedy chops on her unsuspecting professors just by being herself. During one class she drummed up the moxie to toy with one of her journalism professors, longtime (now retired) Star Tribune reporter and columnist Dick Youngblood.
“One day he was telling us some newspaper-man smart-mouth reply that he said to someone in his typical crotchety manner, and for some reason I raised my hand and asked him, ‘Did you have to be such an [expletive]?’”
Immediately after, “there was that horrible silence every comedian loves and dreads before the joke lands,” she said. She held her breath as Youngblood’s eyes widened, the corners of his lips lifted and finally he broke the dreaded silence with a hearty laugh.
“It was a big deal to me because it was such an example of trusting your comedy instincts,” she said. “You think, ‘This is risky, but it just might work!’ Then the joke lands and the target laughs and you gain confidence.”
Developing her comedic instincts at St. Thomas, however loosely, may have helped instill in her the confidence she needed to follow her bliss, or at the very least stand beneath a spotlight telling jokes to a roomful of strangers. Through her early comedy acts she met many of the people who sparked the next big phase of her career at “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K).
A fellow comedian also new to the stand-up scene named Michael (Mike) J. Nelson would become her co-pilot not only in her career but also in life. While the club in which they met, That Comedy Place, no longer stands; Nelson and Mike do. The two married in 1989, and shortly after he was offered a writing position with MST3K, soon becoming the series’ head writer.
Nelson started as a “home writer” for MST3K, watching tapes of bad movies at home and writing jokes. In 1991, she signed on as an official member of the small, tightknit writers’ group – many of whom, such as Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl and Kevin Murphy, she knew from her stand-up days.
For those unfamiliar with MST3K, the show’s deliciously wacky premise revolved around a character named “Joel” (played by MST3K’s founder, comedian Joel Hodgson), and later “Mike,” who is held captive on the Satellite of Love and forced to watch awful B movies by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester, who is focused on discovering that one movie horrible enough to drive humans mad. Mike took Hodgson’s place as host in 1993.
The centerpiece of each episode was a horrendous 90-minute movie viewed by Joel, a janitor employed by the fictitious Gizmonic Institute, and “Tom Servo” (Murphy) and “Crow” (Trace Beaulieu and later Bill Corbett) – two of the four robots he built to keep him company. The trio appeared in silhouette – the show’s hallmark visual – as they roasted movies, scene after horrible scene, from their front-row seats.
Nelson made several eccentric cameo appearances as “Nuveena, Woman of the Future,” “Darlene” the space child, “Mr. B. Natural” and others.When good things happen to bad films
Fast forward to 2017 and you’ll find Nelson, on a balmy March day, watching another bad movie … and loving it.
After years of writing jokes for others, she began performing her own riffs with longtime MST3K friend Pehl for “Rifftrax” – an online service co-created by her husband and his friend David Martin that offers audio roasts of bad movies in the spirit of MST3K.
Mike, Murphy and Corbett perform most of the roasts. Nelson and Pehl, who joined “Rifftrax” in 2015 and riff together exclusively for now, contribute roughly one recording per month.
Today, she and Pehl are watching “Angels’ Revenge,” circa 1979, starring Jack Palance, Peter Lawford and seven genetically gifted female vigilantes on a small flat-screen TV in a tiny bedroom that’s been converted into a recording studio. All tracks are recorded at Murphy’s place, a cozy mid-century house nestled in Minneapolis’ western suburbia.
The movie is the kind of “campy, woman-y stuff” both women love to riff. The vigilantes, dressed improbably in matching low-cut white jumpsuits, huddle conspiratorially near a wooden fence, plotting their ambush on an outpost of bad guys. Their lines are stilted. Their lips are glossed. And their plan doesn’t make any sense. Luckily, Nelson and Pehl have the chops to make this 90-minute slog of scenes effervesce with new life.
Joining them in the studio is Murphy, who mans the recording controls while the women riff, sing and laugh their way through the film. The three are a veritable who’s who of MST3K history by the standards of any MSTie (the self-ascribed pet name of MST3K a aficionados). Pehl had a recurring main role as Pearl Forrester, the campy, diabolical mother of Dr. Clayton Forrester.
“Bridget’s smart and funny, and I like smart and funny people because they make me a better writer,” Pehl said of her old friend.
Their humor, Nelson said, is more lighthearted than what they wrote for MST3K, and like the show, all the roasts are “PG,” though they sprinkle in a little “naughty, fraternity-type humor.”
For all the laughs and fun, both women take their performances seriously and strive to create their best work.A God-given gift
Riffing isn’t the only talent in Nelson’s repertoire. One role close to her heart is talking about Jesus to church groups, large and small – a calling that came after some soul searching. Though she was raised in a devout Catholic family, and attended Mass every Sunday in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas as a student, her Christian identity began to ebb once she achieved success.
It started to flow back in 1996, when she and her husband became “committed Christians,” she said. MST3K was in its seventh season and transitioning from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel. The show had been nominated twice for a Primetime Emmy Writing Award and a feature film, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” was released. By all appearances the Nelsons were living the good life.
“We had an ideal life,” Nelson said. “Two healthy sons, loving siblings, money to spend and we laughed our heads off every day surrounded by creative, funny people writing for an award-winning TV show.” Meanwhile “a profound emptiness” had begun to invade their marriage, she said.
What happened? “We realized our sinfulness,” she said. Then “one weekend, by some miracle, we began to pray together! We spent time confessing to God, going to church, and we began to study our Bibles daily. I also began to do a daily devotion study given to me years earlier by Jim Kellen, who worked in the [O’Shaughnessy-Frey] library.”
Nelson decided the time was right to do something new that blended her comedy and performance skills with ministry.
“Besides, how many puppet shows like MST3K are there to write in Minnesota?” Nelson joked.
She joined Bloomington, Minnesota-based Family Fest Ministries, a multi-denominational Christian ministry that partners with churches and families to provide camps, retreats and presentations for families, couples and youth. Nelson presented extensively, telling faith stories on various topics that she crafted from her personal stories.
“Whether Bridget speaks to kids or adults, she simply draws in her audience, first with her amazing sense of humor, then with her heartfelt message,” said Pete Larson, executive director of Family Fest Ministries. “To listen to her talk about life, love and faith using her incredible sense of humor is a gift.”
Mike believes, “Bridget is better equipped to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it actually applies to human families, here, now, on earth, than almost anyone I know.”
Nelson discovered that “it’s important but also fun for young people to see that you can be a committed Christian and still be funny, or still be creative, or whatever it is, and you don’t always have to be so serious,” she said, emphasizing that she didn’t alter her jokes to be Christian themed after she recommitted to her faith.
In her talks, whether with adults, couples or teens, Nelson always brings up the need to confess sins, repent and be free.
“God gives you gifts, and they’re not contingent on you doing other things,” she said. “How you’re going to be a good steward of it or not is up to you.”Riffing into the future
The sweet thing about shows such as this is what their fan bases lack in numbers they outdistance their chart-busting counterparts in devotion. Eighteen years after MST3K, Netflix revived the show with 14 new episodes in April. Though the Nelsons are not affiliated with it, they are supportive of the project, which was funded by more than $5.7 million by fans through Kickstarter – the most successful crowdfunded film or video project of all time.
Likewise, online discussion boards are brimming with stories from viewers of how MST3K got them through a tough time. Nelson is well aware of this, and believes the series’ unfailingly good-natured humor has a lot to do with the persistence of its fans’ devotion.
“In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis said, ‘Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What? You, too? I thought that I was the only one.”’ MST3K had that effect on people,” she said. “Especially people suffering with loneliness and depression. I think people feel as if they are right in there with the writers, cracking up and ‘getting it’ in the way that friends do.”
Nelson thinks it’s a distinguishing feature carried on through “Rifftrax” as well. She’s grateful to be back bringing joy into people’s lives through the comedic roasts that launched one of the great joys of her life. And she’s grateful to the people who have trusted and continue to trust her for a good laugh.
Then, like any good comedian, she closed on a light note.
“I’d also heard many stories of mothers saying, ‘Turn off that stupid show!’ To that I say, it’s a kid’s job to annoy their parent, and I’m proud to have helped out in a harmless way!”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.
College campuses take a lot of effort to keep beautiful and welcoming to humans. A group of St. Thomas community members have been working on opening the campus to more guests – many of the insect variety – by creating the Pollinator Path.
The Pollinator Path sprawls across the St. Paul campus and is made up of around a dozen sites with plants to attract pollinators like bees or butterflies.
Greenhouse manager Catherine Grant and Doreen Schroeder, senior laboratory coordinator and adjunct Biology faculty member, are at the heart of the network that helped build the path. While the primary goal of the path is to provide a food source for pollinators, Grant and Schroeder also want it to be an educational opportunity for people to learn more about plants and pollinators, and how they support one another.
“On the most simple level, we’ve asked people to notice the presence or absence of pollinators,” Grant said. “Then people can go home and take that to their own gardens.”
Starting out on the path
When was the last time you encountered a bee – or multiple bees? For some that answer may be easier to recall than others, but the fact remains that many of the flowers planted in gardens aren’t attractive to pollinators.
“The general public is used to not seeing bees around,” Schroeder said. “They think that’s the norm, when in fact it shouldn’t be.”
While neither Grant nor Schroeder proclaim to be bee experts, they dove into this project with support from the St. Thomas grounds crew. St. Thomas neighbors also donated about 100 native plants to establish a pollinator garden, which is now the highlight of the Pollinator Path. Since then, Grant and Schroeder have paid attention to what plants work well and planned out new sites accordingly.
“[Bees] have never been a focal point for me until the last three or four years,” Grant said. “Once you pay attention, I feel like there’s no going back. Then you look at a plant and go, ‘Sure, it’s pretty or has beautiful leaves, but will it bring the bees?’”
Even in its early stages, the Pollinator Path has provided opportunities for student work and research. One of Schroeder’s recent Conservation Biology classes spent time counting the number of pollinators they came across on campus south of Summit Avenue. They compared their data to other classes’, reaching back five years, and saw a threefold increase in bumblebees and a six-fold increase in honeybees in the area. (While Schroeder is quick to point out that most of the numbers probably have increased because the surrounding St. Paul community has more managed hives, the Pollinator Path is providing those bees with a food source.)
Schroeder plans to regularly collect scientific data over the next year for a better understanding of what pollinators enjoy what plants to better inform what to plant in the future.
A new habitat
Unsurprisingly, Schroeder and Grant, as well as their students, have learned a lot about bees through this project. Much of their efforts have centered around native bees, whose hardships are less frequently discussed than those of honeybees’.
“Here we’re providing them food, but if we don’t account for habitat, then we’re not doing everything we can,” Grant said.
Native bees are also often less social than honeybees and their nests are different from the stereotypical hive we think of. The hives made for them, instead, usually are reeds bundled together or blocks of wood with holes drilled in them, where the solitary bees then lay their eggs. Enter two students who work for Grant in the greenhouse, Jacob Grow ’18 and Matthew Cox ’18: Grow and Cox designed and created four native-friendly hives, which will soon be put on campus. (Note that solitary bees are unlikely to sting.)
Grow and Cox said they have enjoyed hands-on work where they can directly make a positive difference.
“It’s really nice to see the fruits of my labor,” Grow said, laughing at his pun. “Any time you’re having a wide variety of insects like that, you’re going to have a wider variety of healthy plants, and having more diversity in an ecosystem makes for a healthier ecosystem.”
Both take what they learn in their jobs home with them: Grow said he feels comfortable planting at his own home now and has a better understanding of when and what to buy when it comes to produce; Cox said he takes the sustainability tips that come from the greenhouse and applies them in his life.
Cox, who is an environmental science and philosophy major, intends to work in conservation science after graduation, and said the practical education he gains from the greenhouse is invaluable.
“Every day, I get the advantage of learning a new plant, a new skill, a new sustainable practice of taking care of plants in the greenhouse,” he said. “I’m exposed to other people who are in that kind of field, who maybe are starting a new urban farm.”
They added that tending to the gardens can be hard work – but there’s an obvious satisfaction that comes from it.
“I handpicked [Japanese] beetles off of plants and dropped them in soapy water for a week-and-a-half last summer,” Cox said. “You don’t put that kind of work and dedication into every project.”
“I’ve spent just five hours weeding,” added Grow, who is a business law major. “And that’s not very fun, but it needs to be done or else it will hurt the plants. Doing that and being able to see why I do things, even if it’s not enjoyable, I think I’ll be able to take that into everything else that I do.”
The Pollinator Path will greatly extend its reach next year because it will be a partner for the Sustainable Communities Partnership. SCP works with entities, often cities or governments, to integrate partner-identified sustainability projects into St. Thomas courses. In the upcoming year, SCP, led by Maria Dahmus, will collaborate with Grant and Schroeder to help develop the Pollinator Path as a platform of discovery and learning for both St. Thomas students and the broader community.
While Dahmus, Grant and Schroeder still are brainstorming all the course connections, Spanish and theology paired courses are already on board. Through the theology lens, the students will read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and identify quotes that explain why the Pollinator Path is important.
“The community can then understand [the path] from a Catholic social teaching perspective, which I think is important coming from a Catholic university,” Dahmus said.
Through the Spanish lens, students will do some translation work, opening the path up to an even broader community.
Dahmus, Grant and Schroeder also hope to partner with a teacher education course to develop K-12 curriculum for the Pollinator Path, particularly for younger children, so the path becomes an easily accessible asset. To that end, they already have partnered with geography students who created an online Story Map for the path that will be available soon. The Story Map helps visitors navigate the path and has information about what might be observed along the way. The physical signs on the path also will be expanded.
Dahmus said she is particularly excited about working with the Pollinator Path because it is an on-campus project that students can easily get involved with and see the results of their actions. One of the goals from SCP’s view is to integrate projects into classes from many different disciplines, to show how every discipline has something unique and important to contribute to sustainability.
“Often when you think of what you can do for sustainability, it’s that you need to stop doing certain things, right?” Dahmus said. “But that’s not really what it’s about. What it’s really about, for us, is how we can create better systems through innovation and creativity and collaboration to promote and restore human and environmental well-being. … Students get to see the results and be innovators.”
For Cox, that certainly has rung true.
“People really influence what you do and make a positive change,” Cox said. “When [neighbors] donated the plants for the pollinator garden, those plants are still growing, making a positive difference. That’s something really valuable. … Anyone on campus can come up with an idea and make a difference.”
Around the state, the country, the world, Dr. Barbara Shank has had such an impact in her nearly 40 years with the St. Catherine-St. Thomas School of Social Work that her name is synonymous with the program.
“She is the School of Social Work,” said adjunct professor Mary Tinucci, who earned her doctorate in social work in May to complete the school’s “triple crown”: undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in social work all at St. Kate’s-St. Thomas.
“It’s been a marvel, really, to witness her energy and her staunch determination. She may be one of the most determined people I’ve ever met,” said associate professor Mari Ann Graham, citing the many issues that come with leading a joint school. “She’s fiercely loyal to the School of Social Work, as well as to our two institutions. She’s fiercely loyal to us as faculty members; she really goes to bat for the school. It’s something to just witness that sort of determination and stamina.”
Shank has been a leader of social work education within the program – as well as nationally and internationally – since 1978, when she was one of the founding faculty members of the social work program at St. Catherine. Shank led the development of the master’s in social work degree that began in 1990, and was the founding dean when the program evolved into the School of Social Work in 1996. Shank also oversaw the school’s launch of its online doctoral program in 2014 – the first of its kind in the country – and has helped make St. Kate’s-St. Thomas one of the premier places in the country for social work education.
“Her legacy is huge,” said Cindy Lorah, director of marketing and recruitment for social work. “People know of our program and think highly of it on a national level because she is such an advocate for not only our school, but social work and social work education overall. … Our doctoral program sums up the importance of social work education as part of social work practice. People will always associate our program with Barbara.”
Shank will retire at the end of the 2018 academic year, having built a school ranked in the top third in the country for social work by U.S. News & World Report, a credit to the overall quality that has come together under her guidance. Her departure prompted many to reflect on all she has meant to social work education, especially at the School of Social Work, the only joint program between St. Thomas and St. Catherine. Next year will mark her 70th birthday and exactly 40 years since she left her job as a probation officer doing court mediations for Ramsey County to start her education career.
“I knew as soon as I got [to my teaching position] I was never going back,” Shank said.A lifetime of service
Shank earned her sociology degree in 1970 from Macalester College. She was motivated by a course in social welfare history that featured a lecture on the Elizabethan Poor Laws, which began in the early 17th century as a way to lift people out of poverty.
“It was a fit for me, what social work is about, what social workers do,” she said. “I knew then I wanted to be a social worker as my profession.
“The worse social problems get in this country, in the world, the more we need social workers. Social workers are the workforce who deal with people who have the challenging issues. Social workers provide over 60 percent of the mental health services in this country, more than psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists combined. The country needs this workforce, desperately,” Shank added. “Social workers want to make the world better. That can be through the kids, families, communities they’re advocating for, the clinical work they do – they want to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Shank earned her master’s degree from the University of Minnesota (as well as a Ph.D. there in 1993) before a two-year contract with the budding St. Catherine Social Work Department turned into the start of a career’s work in education. She rose through the ranks and was dean of the School of Social Work starting in 1996.
Shank said each step for the School of Social Work has been a natural one and a matter of “evolving to meet the community’s needs, which is what St. Thomas and St. Catherine are all about.
“It’s all been a collaborative effort, a partnership with my colleagues,” she added. “It’s all about what we’ve done and what we’ve built together. It’s just been incredible.”
The vast majority of those colleagues were hired by Shank, and their collective excellence is a testament to her, said associate professor Mary Ann Brenden.
“She built a very strong faculty. While this is a big change for her to leave and move on, the faculty that she has built and attracted to our program is equipped to carry on these programs and they will continue to be enriched,” Brenden added. “It’s very competitive these days in social work education, so drawing a strong faculty is not an easy task. She’s done a great job of that.”Advocating for students
As her leadership roles expanded into administration and focused on higher-level issues for the school, Shank was unique in that “she’s still as strong of a student advocate as anyone on our faculty. … She is the sort of dean who has always been accessible to our students and has been an advocate for our students,” Graham said.
Shank said she has valued remaining a part of the faculty throughout her career (“I’m prouder of the title of professor than I am of dean,” she said), which allowed her to help shape the lives of countless students.
“Barbara just always has my back. She’s always been supportive,” said Tinucci, who took classes with Shank both as an undergraduate and in the doctoral program. “She was always rooting for us. She’s always supporting my capacity to be a competent social worker.”
“She encouraged me all along with the idea that social work is not just about being a social worker, that there are all sorts of ways someone can use a social degree,” said Joy Bartscher, a judge in the Second Judicial District and a 1986 alumna of the School of Social Work. “Being involved with social work throughout the years, it’s clear St. Thomas and St. Kate’s have made a commitment to those ideas of fairness and justice. And that’s in large part because of Barbara and how she approaches social work, and treating people with dignity and respect.”
“It’s fair to say she’s been an inspiration to not only members of our own faculty, but to social work educators across the country,” Graham added. “That’s not exaggerating her impact, not even a little bit.”A global influence
Shank has been a tireless supporter of social work education on the local, national and international levels, helping further a multifaceted approach to the field.
“Social work has multiple components … advocacy and pursuit of social justice, in addition to direct service, working with individuals. People think that it’s only one thing, only clinical, therapeutic kind of work. It’s not,” Shank said. “You have to understand the importance and relevance of policy to your clients, have to understand the environment and how organizations and communities work. It’s that integrated perspective of the profession.”
Shank has an extensive leadership resume with the Council on Social Work Education, International Schools for Social Work, and the International Consortium for Social Development, among others, as well as her role in the accreditation process reviewing some 300 programs around the country. In those roles and at the School of Social Work she has contributed an immense amount of teaching, research and overall advocacy of social work.
“She has helped to advance the eld nationally and internationally. That work has been a great source of pride and speaks really well to our missions at St. Thomas and St. Kate’s,” Brenden said. “Barbara is a visionary. She has always had a really clear sense of the importance of the profession of social work, and the important role that it plays in our institutions at St. Catherine and St. Thomas, and the important role that it plays in our world.”
Shank’s passion and body of work have been lauded throughout her career. She earned widespread recognition from organizations throughout the educational and social work landscapes, including recently being named a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers, and receiving the Significant Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors.
“If you’re insular and only involved in your own school, you don’t know what’s going on in the world. When you participate and get involved in national activities … you get a lay of the land and see what other people are doing, which is always eye-opening and either affirms what you’re doing or makes you think twice about it. Being involved in a leadership capacity at a national level has informed what I and we have done [at the School of Social Work],” Shank said.Round two
Shank’s time as dean ended this May and she is spending the next year archiving the history of social work at St. Kate’s-St. Thomas. Her stepping away from the role of dean also coincided with the D.S.W. program’s first graduating class, timing that represents a fitting completion to one of the many areas of growth that Shank championed here.
There’s no doubt that Shank’s impact will continue to be felt in the School of Social Work for a long time.
“I love what I do. If I wasn’t 70, I could do this for another 20 years. At some point it’s time to sign out and move on,” Shank said.
“I’m very proud of the School of Social Work and what we’ve been able to do. When I came here there were four of us [faculty] and 50 students, now we have 31 and over 600 students. It’s been great to be a part of.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.
The University of St. Thomas is proud to announce Mr. Alvin Abraham as the founding dean of the Dougherty Family College, which will welcome its inaugural class of students in August 2017. Abraham currently serves as the executive director of KIPP Minnesota, a local nonprofit and public charter school solution that provides underserved communities access to high-quality, college preparatory education.
Dougherty Family College, named after lead benefactors Mike and Kathy Dougherty, is the newest St. Thomas college, intended to be an affordable first step toward a four-year degree. It is uniquely designed to help ensure the success of underserved students who may be the first in their family to attend college, or those who have limited support or financial assistance to pursue a four-year degree. The college will offer students an associate degree in liberal arts, with courses that meet Minnesota Transfer Curriculum guidelines, which will allow graduates to have a seamless transition to St. Thomas or other public or private four-year institutions in Minnesota. The college is now accepting applications through July 14, 2017, for its inaugural class.
“We launched Dougherty Family College with an ambitious vision to address the alarming education and prosperity gaps in Minnesota,” stated St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan. “We knew we would need a transformative leader, and we have found that in Mr. Alvin Abraham.”
“Alvin embraces our St. Thomas convictions of academic excellence and personal attention – with an emphasis on building relationships with students and families to better support the social and cultural well-being of students,” said St. Thomas Executive Vice President and Provost Richard Plumb. “His leadership in culturally responsive teaching, combined with formalized systems for using student data to inform instruction, have driven academic growth and been recognized for closing achievement gaps for racially and ethnically diverse student populations.”
Abraham moved to Minnesota in 2012 at the request of KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, a trusted mentor and former Teach for America colleague.
“There was such passion and hope here,” Abraham shared. “It’s well known that when students in disadvantaged communities have access to high-quality education, they will rise to the challenge and be successful on a life path that is very similar to that of their peers in more supportive communities.”
Over the past five years, his leadership has resulted in transformative change for KIPP, accelerating academic growth, gaining state recognition and securing critical partnerships for wraparound services aimed at improving the academic experience. Along with expanding the KIPP charter schools, Abraham helped create the KIPP Through College program for Minnesota, which provides support for KIPP alumni as they navigate the college selection and higher education experience.
“I’m excited about working with the St. Thomas community to create a highly regarded two-year program that helps eliminate the opportunity gap that exists for students from underserved communities,” Abraham said. “A college degree is a game changer and can break the cycle of generational poverty in a family. It’s vital the Dougherty Family College has both a strong academic focus and the supports for students to be successful, with the confidence and skills to eventually graduate with a four-year degree.”
Abraham started his career as an elementary educator with Teach for America and then continued teaching in Houston, Texas. A proven leader, Abraham quickly ascended into educational administration as an assistant principal for Fort Bend Independent School District and then principal in Houston Independent School District. There he implemented the Apollo 20 program, a bold initiative identified by Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory to transform education and improve academic achievement of educationally underserved students. Abraham relocated to Minneapolis in 2012 to lead KIPP North Star Academy and was appointed executive director in 2014.
Abraham holds a Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Texas A & M University-College Station and a master’s of educational administration from the University of Houston. He is on the board of directors of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and serves on the national advisory board of Teach for America – The Collective.
The University of St. Thomas engaged the executive search firm of LymanDoran for the recruitment of this leadership position.
About the University of St. Thomas
Located in St. Paul, Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas is a private, liberal arts university that emphasizes values-based education and career preparation. With more than 10,000 students, it is Minnesota’s largest independent college or university. The university welcomes students of all ages, religions, races and financial backgrounds. Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good. The university has three campuses: St. Paul, Minneapolis and Rome, Italy.
Jamie Larson, a marketing major/communication and journalism minor, got a head start on her post-graduation gig, getting hired on as a digital specialist for Collegis Education – an agency that, according to its website, offers “technology-based solutions, analytics and strategies to help a diverse range of colleges and universities navigate the changing landscape of higher education” – just a few days before she was interviewed for this profile. She told us about her whirlwind hiring experience and how skills honed at St. Thomas and a birthday wish paved the way to her job.
What will you be doing for Collegis Education?
I’ll be working on their paid search team, which means I’ll be working with ads that appear on search engines or LinkedIn, etc. I’ll also be working with the SEO team to help clients bring in more leads and returning visitors to their sites. It’s a lot like what I’ve been doing here. I’ll be busy because they’re growing like crazy!
How did you land your job?
My first “real-world” experience was through a summer internship last year at a digital agency called Ovative/group as an SEO intern where my clients were Stitch Fix, General Mills and Evine. It was my first time learning all about search engine optimization. Then this past October I got a job here working for Diane Kulseth [on the Insights and Analytics team in the Marketing, Insights and Communications Department] doing site content analysis for the Executive Education program. For my job, I’d look into questions like, “What questions are people asking that land them on our [St. Thomas] site?” “What’s trending and how can we put those things on our site?” [and] “What is the consumers’ path and how can we promote certain posts?”
You were hired recently, right?
Yes! Diane had her birthday recently, and for her present from me, she told me that she wanted me to apply to a job opening she saw listed on LinkedIn. I had a coffee chat with someone at Collegis on a Monday, had an interview on Wednesday and on Friday I got the job offer!
Were any professors particularly influential?
Gino Giovannelli [Opus College of Business]. He taught an interactive marketing class that I took during J-Term my sophomore year. It was the first digital exposure I’d ever had, and I was excited because it’s a really popular course that even seniors have trouble getting into it, but I did. But even more, if I hadn’t taken his class, I wouldn’t have known what a digital agency encompasses or if I would be where I am today. I still talk to him to this day and have even had a coffee with a couple of his professional connections.
What did you do outside of classes?
I’ve been a member of the American Marketing Association chapter on campus and Women in Business. My freshman and sophomore years I worked for my mom’s recruiting company. I also played intramural volleyball.
What will you miss most about St. Thomas?
In college, everyone tells you it’s the best four years of your life, and I think that could be true. Unexpected memories happen every day, every weekend. I’ll never live with four roommates and share one bathroom ever again. It’s going to get a lot harder to connect with all of the friends I’ve made. I will really, really miss that … the daily connection.
As the air grew colder and trees took their annual turn toward a dazzling array of oranges, yellows and reds, Minnesotans enjoyed the natural beauty their state has to offer again this fall. But what if, in years to come, those trees don’t find Minnesota to be a hospitable, happy home any longer?
Sophomore Rachael Heier spent last summer researching how annual climate change may affect our native trees in a zone where winters are projected to be closer to that of current Wisconsin, and summers closer to that of current Kansas.
“Many large, broad-leafed trees, pines, oaks, are not able to adapt quickly enough to changing temperatures,” Heier said. “It’s pretty impactful to see an actual physical effect on these things you see and love as a Minnesota citizen.”
Heier worked with biology associate professor Simon Emms, connecting with – and funded by a grant from – Great River Greening on the Fish Creek restoration project, which St. Thomas has helped with since 2011.
“It provides an opportunity to work on a really important question in conservation biology and restoration ecology: How do we preserve natural areas and the biodiversity they contain in the face of climate change that is altering the physical and biological conditions that those areas experience?” Emms said. “Second, it enables [students] to see how they can participate in meaningful, practical activities that protect, preserve and restore local natural environments – both for the wildlife that lives there and for local communities to enjoy.”
For Heier, those practical activities centered on assisted colonization, where two types of saplings from the same species of white oak were planted “to see if we would transplant similar species that are adapted to warmer or colder climates,” Heier said.
Heier and others counted and measured about 830 year-old plantings, which represent the baseline for measurements that will continue for another 10-15 years, she said.
“It was cool to be on the front end and laying down the base groundwork, this really essential part,” Heier said.
While Heier said she long has been interested in mitigating climate change, working on research like this helped her see the kind of impact smaller-scale projects can have toward bigger results.
“It’s not the biggest thing but everything does start on a local level. If you can do these projects and make it work, then it could be implemented on a wider scale and have even more impact,” she said. “It made me feel better about the problem, no matter how large and insurmountable it is. This made it manageable to know there are physical things we can do about it.”
“None of us individually is going to be able solve the world’s major environmental problems, so the key is to find something positive to contribute at a local or regional scale and recognize that if many others do the same, global change is possible,” Emms added. “Rachael was a great research student – she was interested in the project, intelligent, hard-working and thoughtful. Regardless of what she does next, having had a meaningful research experience as an undergraduate will be of great benefit to her.”