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Swanson Faculty Honored in First Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement’s Partnerships of Distinction Awards

PITTSBURGH (March 29, 2019)—The inaugural Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement’s Partnerships of Distinction Award honored several faculty members and students from the Swanson School of Engineering Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, in recognition of their community-impacting research and initiatives. The highly competitive award recognizes partnerships that are exemplars of community engagement at Pitt. Up to five partnerships are chosen each year to receive the award and a $2,000 grant to support their work.

Melissa Bilec, Roberta A. Luxbacher Faculty Fellow and associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Harold Rickenbacker, a PhD candidate in Civil Engineering, are receiving the Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement’s Partnerships of Distinction Award for their partnership with the East End’s Kingsley Association on community-based environmental justice and air pollution initiatives. 

Dr. Bilec and Mr. Rickenbacker’s current initiative in the East End of Pittsburgh, the Environmental Justice Community Alert Matrix (EJCAM), has provided trainings for over 200 residents on the importance of environmental sustainability and the training to do so over the past five years. The team worked with the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation’s co-director of administration and external relations, Gena Kovalcik, to form the partnership with the Kingsley Association. Residents of Larimer learned the technical knowledge to identify environmental concerns within their homes while learning the importance of sustainability in water use, energy consumption and air pollution. 

“Working with the Kingsley Association allowed the University to impact the greater Pittsburgh community while responding directly to a community’s definition of their needs,” says Dr. Bilec. “As a result of the EJCAM, community members are knowledgeable about green materials, infrastructure and land use practices, and they are more active in the management of forthcoming landscape features in housing developments and pollution control schemes.” 

An article detailing the outcomes of this program was recently published in the journal Sustainable Cities and Society.

Mr. Rickenbacker also won the Carnegie Science Award in the College/University Student category this year for his work on EJCAM. 

“When addressing environmental justice issues, long-term, community-based initiatives like this one are important and effective,” says Mr. Rickenbacker. “In order to build partnerships with the community, you have to make sure they have a vested interest in your shared success. And to do that, you have to build lasting partnerships, not hold singular community events. With this award, we can continue to build our relationship with the Kingsley Association and replicate this model in neighboring communities impacted by environmental justice issues.”

Dr. David Sanchez, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and research students from the Sustainable Design Labs, were selected as an honorable mention this year for the Sustainability and STEM initiative. Sustainability and STEM is a long-term engineering educational outreach program with a focus on sustainability that brings a team of high-energy Pitt students to Manchester Academic Charter School to engage the students there in STEM modules focused on sustainability. The students instruct progressively challenging “stacked” modules to six classes of sixth- to eighth-grade science students annually, allowing Dr. Sanchez and his team to engage with the same middle-school students every year as they advance in their education. 

Previous Sustainability in STEM modules have included: Future Cities Design; DIY Solar Houses, Cars, Water Filters and Wind Turbines; Understanding Renewable Energy; and Life-Cycle Assessment/Reducing Solid Waste.

“Our goal is to share high-quality STEM modules that teach, engage and inspire the next generation of young scientists,” says Dr. Sanchez. “But it is also to leverage the resources available in the Swanson School of Engineering Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation to make a positive difference in our community.”

The winners and honorable mentions will be listed as exemplar partnerships in the University’s application for the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. 

The awards were presented at the University’s Community-Engaged Scholarship Forum on Friday, March 29.

Contact: Maggie Pavlick