Nelson Institute’s Holly Gibbs receives award to expand community-engaged scholarship with UniverCity Alliance

Headshots of Holly Gibbs and Jules Reynolds

Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) professor of Geography Holly Gibbs and PhD student Jules Reynolds have been awarded funds to provide students greater opportunity to work with communities across Wisconsin.

The Kemper J. Knapp grant funding will support Reynolds as a project assistant to strengthen an emerging connection with UniverCity Alliance–a cross-campus initiative that pairs local governments with University of Wisconsin-Madison classes to solve community problems–and Gibbs’ Geography / Environmental Studies 309 class called “People, Land and Food.”

Though the course discusses the global challenges and opportunities like tropical deforestation in Brazil or small-scale agriculture in Africa, Gibbs also emphasizes what impact food and land sustainability can make closer to home.

Headshot of Holly Gibbs
Holly Gibbs

“We really dive into these local challenges and empower students to apply the lessons and concepts that they learn in class to influence change through semester-long community-engaged projects,” said Gibbs, who oversees the Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab (GLUE).

During the class, students complete projects that connect course themes with personal topics of interest. Examples have included a Campus Food Map and Sustainability Dining Guide, policy change that reduced receipt usage in the Union Food Services and an “Amazing Waste” cookbook.

In Spring 2021, Megan Binkley, who is currently a UW-Madison archaeology graduate student, created a map of Ho-Chunk History, Language & Culture in the Village of Waunakee and Westport and initiated the partnership with UniverCity Alliance. The project’s success prompted conversations about increasing the scale of community-based projects in “People, Land and Food.”

Headshot of Jules Reynolds
Jules Reynolds

“We’ve noticed that student projects closely linked to the community organizations tend to be most successful and durable in terms of their impacts,” said Reynolds, who is a PhD student in Geography and Environment and Resources.

Reynolds is also a former fellow with the Morgridge Center for Public Service and recently received the UW Early Excellence in Teaching award.

These types of projects require more oversight to ensure they are beneficial for students and communities.

As a project assistant, Reynolds will be available to provide direct student support and build infrastructure and learning activities to make the community-based projects as successful as possible.

“Part of the thinking behind UniverCity Alliance is to look for ways to really institutionalize partnerships and projects, so that students can plug into partnerships that are bigger than this class and really be successful,” Reynolds said.

Gibbs hopes this work can be the “beginning of a long-lasting partnership.”

“I’m really excited that (Reynolds will) be able to help solidify the partnership with UniverCity Alliance in this course as we go forward,” Gibbs said.

UniverCity Alliance’s Managing Director Gavin Luter added: “We regularly get requests from communities to see things mapped because it helps them visualize data and information. This partnership with Holly’s class brings more capacity to do just that, and we’re grateful.”

—By Abigail Becker