Adaptability was the theme of the final presentations from the Summer 2020 PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies (ISS) Green Teams – and who better to recognize that quality than former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor and current U.S. Representative (NJ-11) Mikie Sherrill.
“In your internship, you’ve tackled some of the pressing questions we face as a society right now: food insecurity, sustainability, waste and environmental challenges,” said Sherrill to the students during the August 5 event. “You’ve seen the challenges that our business community faces as a result of the pandemic and that we need to address as we work to reopen our economy and keep workers safe.”
The Congresswoman added, “All of you have had to demonstrate your perseverance and flexibility during a difficult time. And I’m inspired by your commitment to continue to ask big questions and work toward solutions. You all are going to be great for our country’s future. You have a lot to be proud of and we are so proud of you in return.”
In a special surprise, Green Team organizer Amelia Miller announced that each Green Team member would be receiving a Congressional certificate recognizing their efforts this summer – offered by Congresswoman Sherrill.
As Green Team members, 30 students from 17 institutions of higher learning worked on six projects this summer, with tasks ranging from surveying Jersey City’s tree canopy and quantifying carbon sequestered in them, mapping emissions for the entire City of Newark, integrating technology to better manage urban farms, analyzing municipal food waste, and developing internal corporate energy efficiencies.
The Green Teams program, now completing its fifth summer, is based at Montclair State University, where the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies supports research and community and corporate projects, including climate change in New Jersey, and energy and water studies globally. It has been a key platform for launching participating students into internships, green jobs and graduate/professional study.
This summer, the Green Teams took on projects with the City of Jersey City, City of Newark, Newark Science and Sustainability (SAS), New Jersey Natural Gas, the Northern New Jersey Community Foundation, and PSEG.
The paid internships are supported by the PSEG Foundation, academic and corporate partners, and grants from the National Science Foundation and other foundations and private sources, and offered in partnership with New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability.
On August 5, students presented their findings and final recommendations, which revealed detailed work, a commitment to excellence in data, and thoughtful, innovative approaches to finding solutions across multiple disciplines.
Keynote speakers also stressed the role of diversity in solving sustainability problems. “Collaboration and diversity is key. Diversity drives innovation. Our diversity is what keeps us competitive and makes us stronger. The Green Teams recognize this,” said Jose Lozano, president & chief executive officer of Choose New Jersey.
Lozano was referring not only to the background of the students, but to the range of majors represented among team members.
PSEG Green Team member Gabrielle Mills, a Montclair State English, Professional Writing and Journalism major, explained how the program is not just for STEM majors.
“Even if you feel you might not fit or you might not be qualified, there’s a lot of on-the-job training and on-the-job learning,” Mills said. “I am an English major and came into this not knowing how I could be of use to my team, but there’s a lot of writing and it worked out. So if you feel that perhaps you are underqualified, definitely look into what teams have done in the past. I highly suggest applying. It’s an amazing program with amazing people.”
According to Lozano, “Green teams produce career-ready graduates from all backgrounds – some of our best and our brightest.” He encouraged companies to hire them and expressed his hope that Green Team graduates would stay in New Jersey to build their careers.
“We need all of your talents for a better future for New Jersey and the world.”
Keynote speaker Bruce Stiftel, professor emeritus of School of City & Regional Planning of the Georgia Institute of Technology, expressed how impressed he is with the Green Team program: “The work that you are doing is really a model for us.” Stiftel went on to outline how urban populations would continue to explode globally into the next century, presenting opportunities and challenges around sustainability.
“Our cities have enormous challenges but people keep coming to them,” said Stiftel. “Why? Because cities are places of opportunity.”
Although addressing COVID-19 was not the main task of any of the Green Teams, the pandemic upended every aspect of daily life, including the teams’ work. The Newark SAS team, which examined how to optimize the performance of community gardens and improve distribution, acknowledged how COVID-19 further exacerbated issues of food insecurity, making it harder for inner city residents to travel outside their “food deserts” to obtain nutritious produce.
The New Jersey Natural Gas team, working with towns in Monmouth and Ocean counties to find energy efficiencies, reported that traditional means of messaging to residents had to be abandoned for new ones — including video messages they created to be played at city council meetings.
Students also discussed how working remotely with their teams impacted them this summer.
“Working online certainly is different than working in person,” said Tyler McLemore, an Electrical and Computer Engineering major at Rowan University and member of the New Jersey Natural Gas team, “but it does have its advantages and, if you use those, it will work out in the end. One example: we would have had to physically travel to these municipalities. That would have taken more time,” he noted. Instead of the “30 seconds to get into a Zoom versus diving for an hour to Ocean Gate then drive back for an hour. We had way more time to work on the project.”
Tess Turner, an International Studies and Political Science major at John Hopkins University, said she was concerned about being isolated but noted that “something great about this platform is that everyone had to struggle with the same problems. It actually was a good bonding experience.”
Daniil Ivanov, a Biochemistry major from New Jersey Institute of Technology, explained that working remotely “definitely” presented barriers to communication, especially with making infographics. “We had to find workarounds.”
PSEG ISS Director Amy Tuininga was impressed. “Everyone was so productive,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly what to expect online, but everyone did an incredible job being resilient.”
The final speaker, the Climate Change and Energy Policy Manager of The Nature Conservancy, Trina Chattoraj Mallik, said the students gave her optimism and that their adaptability would serve them well.
“Doing meaningful work at the local level is the most difficult. You are accountable. You see the results. You see the failures. Once you have been successful at the local level you are all the more effective at scaling your work to a larger level.”
Tuininga concurred: “I think the future is bright with these students in charge.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann
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