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A lesson in sustainability University awarded $10,000 for forestry project

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been selected as the winner of the Service Learning Contest conducted by The Arbor Day Foundation.

College and university campuses across the nation participated in the contest, held Nov. 9-13. The purpose of the contest was to promote sustainable living and bring environmental awareness to the community. Each university had to propose an enrichment project that would both improve the environment and serve the community.

Each participant must be a member of Tree Campus USA, sponsored by The Arbor Day Foundation. UTRGV legacy school, the University of Texas Pan American, previously held membership with Tree Campus USA. This membership was transferred to UTRGV.

Alex Racelis, an assistant professor in the School of Multidisciplinary Sciences,  oversaw the team of students involved in the tree survey that is required to become a member of Tree Campus USA.

“There are only a select number of campuses, only 17 in the state of Texas, that are considered Tree Campus USA members,” Racelis said. “My role was to help orchestrate and meet the five requirements to receive designation from [Tree Campus USA].”

Keeping this designation is not a simple task. Racelis and a group of students were required to survey all 2,000 trees on the Edinburg campus. This consisted of measuring the height of the trees and documenting their overall condition. Racelis and the Office for Sustainability are looking for a way to coordinate the same methods of tree surveying on the Brownsville campus.

“It requires four hours a week with at least 15 students,” Racelis said. “It takes a lot of coordination and training. But it’s good because the students learn a lot of skills and techniques. It takes effort and training, but it’s a wonderful educational experience.”

The Office for Sustainability worked with Racelis and Proyecto Azteca, a nonprofit self-help construction company in San Juan, in coordinating the proposal for The Arbor Day Service Learning Contest.

Faculty, students, Proyecto Azteca and members of the community will help make the proposed community project a reality on Jan. 16, 2016.

“We will take our volunteers to do a workshop with the community so that they can learn about the benefits of trees and how to maintain their trees,” said Marianella Franklin, UTRGV’s chief sustainability officer.

The $10,000 award from The Arbor Day Foundation will be used to help Proyecto Azteca in building 30 affordable, energy-efficient homes in Edcouch.

“We have provided training development for the new neighborhood community,” Franklin said. “We wanted to help the community members learn about the benefit of trees. Trees are like filters. They filter all the pollutants in the air within that area.”

The service learning project will be known as the UTRGV Community Service Forestry Project.

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