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Life in the Desert

At Arizona State, a new bastion of sustainability.

Life in the Desert

Want a lesson in sustainability? Come to Tempe, Arizona. Population in the Phoenix area has soared by 41% in the last decade. A construction boom has taxed the area’s infrastructure, natural resources, and transportation system.

Add to that a perpetual drought, and life in the Sonoran Desert seems hardly possible at all. That makes it the perfect laboratory for Arizona State University’s new School of Sustainability, which began classes in January for its first six graduate students.

The school, conceived by ASU president Michael Crow, is dedicated to interdisciplinary study of the environmental, economic, and social challenges of the 21st century. How to make best use of limited natural resources while providing for continued growth? To find solutions, students will engage with departments across the university.

The idea: If companies hope to operate in a world that increasingly demands sustainable strategies and practices, they’ll need employees who actually have the technical expertise. “Significant and high-profile corporations are saying we need to do this,” says director Charles L. Redman. Indeed, executives from Wal-Mart and Starbucks, as well as Arizona utility companies APS and Salt River Project, have already joined the school’s board.

Students will learn to identify and provide solutions to both local and global challenges, taking on such issues as rapid urban growth, sustainable energy and materials use, and water management. At least a dozen research projects are under way, including one on strategies to combat the rising heat index around Phoenix, and another on a special strain of bacteria that could be used to create fuel. Together with the city of Phoenix, three students have begun working on research to develop new materials for an expansion project at Sky Harbor International Airport. Already, students are hooked. “I’m in intellectual love,” proclaims John Carter McKnight, 44, a former lawyer who’s been accepted into the PhD program.

It could be a blueprint for many other institutions, says Tom Kimmerer, who heads the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Certainly, he says, the demand is there. “Colleges and universities have to take the leadership role.”

Data Dump

Arizona State University faculty members engaged in sustainability research: 550