USF PIRE Sustainability Effort Transforms the Nature of Global Research & Partnerships Over five years, one of USF's largest sustainability grants has resulted in a deeper understanding of how to build successful global partnerships to advance the well-being of communities.

In 2013, the National Science Foundation awarded USF's College of Engineering more than $3.9 million to launch its most ambitious sustainability research and education project to date: Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) aimed to meet the challenges of a growing global population - and the ensuing stress on natural resources - through engineering and science-related educational institutions and their students. What this landmark effort accomplished in the process, however, was to create a cultural shift in globally-engaged research and education efforts.

Led by USF College of Engineering Professor James Mihelcic, whose civil and environmental engineering projects have spanned the globe, PIRE grew to become one of the most extensive interdisciplinary global research and training program in the university's history that would build transformative relationships between USF and communities in field training and research sites were developed in Belize and Barbados.

The project also elevated global partnerships, as USF joined with the University of the Virgin Islands, a historically black university, and institutions throughout the Caribbean and Europe to address an overarching question: Can effective, geographically-appropriate, and culturally-relevant engineered systems be established that use wastewater as a resource for energy, water, and nutrients?

"The goal of this PIRE is to initiate a cultural shift in our individual and university research and education programs by developing international research competence and building capacity through global partnerships.” - USF Engineering Professor James Mihelcic.

To answer that question, PIRE drew on some of USF's leading expertise in environmental sustainability and global communities, but with a new and creative approach: It would unite anthropologists with their knowledge of cultures and techniques in understanding people with engineers, whose technical and systems expertise can design better environmental technology. Their shared goal would be to develop improved water and wastewater management systems that took into account the daily lives, cultures and customs of people using the systems. USF Engineering Professor Maya Trotz and USF Anthropology Professor Christian Wells served as co-principal investigators along with University of the Virgin Islands Provost Camille McKayle.

PIRE took on ambitious agenda: 12 separate research challenges gave rise to more than 100 scholarly products and two new inventions. The effort grew to include a coalition of nearly three dozen faculty and researchers guiding more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students from institutions in the United States, the Caribbean and Europe. Among the students were 37 graduate students supported in the project - two dozen of whom gained international research experience including with the Peace Corps, where students were able to participate in the unique training in language, culture, and participatory approaches to community assessment aimed at building the global competency of early career scientists and engineers.

PIRE Team Members and partners in the Placencia Peninsula of Belize. Eric Koenig, Dr. Rebecca Zarger, Dr. Maya Trotz, Diana Seecharran. Front row Christine Prouty, Paola Gonzalez, Suzanna Pratt.

Outside of USF, education and research opportunities were provided to students from the University of the Virgin Islands through research support and creation of a 2+3 undergraduate dual-degree program that provided 25 under-represented minority students majoring in math and physics with access to a degree in engineering.

USF students joined with European partners in advancing the efficiency of recovering energy from agricultural and domestic wastewater.
As an anthropologist the PIRE grant provided an invaluable opportunity to work closely with engineers, community members, environmental organizations, and nonprofits seeking to mitigate impacts of rapid tourism development, climate change, and local outcomes in Belize. As anthropologists, our training focuses on the importance of community perspectives and how they could (and should) be included in the development of new interventions, as communities are the ones directly impacted by them. The experiences provided by the PIRE grant enabled me to learn from other professionals who are directly involved in water and sanitation infrastructure, and it allowed the engineers to more deeply understand the value of community input, as well as ways of navigating relationships with different stakeholders to improve project outcomes." - Paola A. Gonzalez, who earned both a Master of Arts in Applied Anthropology and a Master of Public Health focused in Global Health Practice at USF.

International partnerships were central to the PIRE effort. The project involved academic partners from Europe (the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and the Czech Republic) and the Caribbean Basin (U.S. Virgin Islands, Belize and Mexico), providing a range of expertise in technological innovation, cultural histories, and geographic locations to address integrated resource management challenges often misunderstood due to differences of scale, political will, environmental worldview and financial constraint.

PIRE focused on what has become a challenging global reality: While integrated water and energy systems are fundamental to social, economic, and environmental well-being and prosperity, past efforts failed to integrate appropriate cultural models of local knowledge, institutions, and resources, Mihelcic said. As a result, there has been limited adoption of innovative technologies and strategies to achieve sustainability, and even well-meaning programs were failing.

Students from the St.John Memorial Anglican School in Placencia Village having a discussion about their local water cycle.

PIRE aimed for a different approach. For example, the PIRE team developed a partnership with the local primary school in Belize's Placencia Village, St. John’s Memorial Anglican School. USF Anthropology graduate student (now alum) Paola Gonzalez and Associate Professor Rebecca Zarger developed a lesson plan for the young students discussing the water cycle - Where water comes from and where does it go? - and included water testing for pH and dissolved oxygen. The lesson ended with an interactive dialog that sought student’s input regarding how water and wastewater impacts their environment and daily lives.

"Our research demonstrates that engineering, environmental science, and applied anthropology play an integrated and complimentary role in achieving sustainability in the world’s developing regions, and impacts society beyond science and technology in the U.S. and international contexts ... Research also found that the adoption of these systems by community members does not depend on financial resources alone but also includes education, awareness, and social networks." - PIRE final report to the National Science Foundation.

There were also several technological achievements advanced through this project:

  • Creation and deployment of anaerobic membrane bioreactors that treat wastewater with improved recovery of energy and reclaimed water.
  • Improved operation of anaerobic digesters that treat domestic and agricultural waste streams to not only optimize energy production but also provide safe effluents that can reuse valuable nutrient fertilizers.
  • Identifying critical factors for growing algae on municipal and agricultural wastewater so the produced algae can be used as a fuel or animal feed, and
  • Reclaiming safe water from photosynthesis-based wastewater treatment systems to reduce health risks for farmers and consumers of food irrigated with the reclaimed water.
University of the Virgin Islands and USF researchers investigate how activities on land impact health of off-shore coral reefs

Team members found that across the life cycle of different technologies developed and improved during this project, the environmental impact of a resource recovery technology depended not only on the type of technology and its configuration, but also the scale of implementation and geographic location the technology being implemented, Mihelcic said. "Through systems modeling, we learned that the strategies facilitating behavior changes in a household or community results in significant improvement in adopting new wastewater technologies that integrate resource recovery," he said. "The research also demonstrated that engineering, environmental science, and applied anthropology impact society beyond science and technology in the U.S. and international contexts."

Education and research activities by USF researchers including Anthropology Professor Chistrian Wells in Belize lead to better understanding of how stakeholders adopt new technologies that not only protect water quality but can also recover valuable nutrients.
"Through my research on the PIRE grant I was able to explore the impact of scale and context on wastewater treatment systems integrating resource recovery strategies. My work provided an enriching graduate school experience, assessing the life cycle environmental impacts of wastewater management strategies that recover water, energy, and nutrient in both Florida and Bolivia." - USF PhD graduate Pablo K. Cornejo, now an Assistant Professor Department of Civil Engineering California State University, Chico.

A year after it was launched, the PIRE project became part of an even larger effort created by USF faculty and students to join with a 2014 grant from the Environmental Protecting Agency that focused on reinventing aging infrastructure to manage nutrients in the water. The combined efforts became known as Reclaim, which encompassed the overarching goals of the two grant proposal and created a global network of collaborative researchers, practitioners and students dedicated to creating new, culturally-relevant and geographically-appropriate systems to manage nutrients, energy and water.

Reclaim at USF was conceived from the entrepreneurial spirit of USF graduate students and professors from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Department of Anthropology and College of Marine Science.
"USF PIRE provided opportunities for engineers and anthropology faculty and students to interact and conduct research together. Through these connections, PIRE enriched my research and understanding of engineering systems more broadly. I see the world differently. I met and built lifelong friendships outside of my department. Now as faculty at UC Merced, I submitted a grant with a former adviser of mine in anthropology at USF. Students and faculty approach me at UC Merced to ask more about my research related to integrating anthropology and engineering." - Dr. Colleen Naughton, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Merced.

Learn more about PIRE and Reclaim at http://usf-reclaim.org/. Material for this report originally appeared in the final report to the National Science Foundation, and in blogs and newsletters written for the PIRE and Reclaim programs.


Photos courtesy of PIRE & RECLAIM.