Shaping campus from a distance: student and staff collaboration through the Living Lab program

nine participants in a zoom call
Several members of the PSU Campus Rainworks Challenge team

At 4pm each Monday for the last several weeks, a handful of students have met together on Zoom to plan their team entry to the Campus Rainworks Challenge: a site design for a bioswale and green wall demonstration project along SW Montgomery Street at Portland State. Made up of engineering, geography, and environmental science students, the team was brought together by student leaders from the PSU American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) chapter. Their theoretical green infrastructure design builds on several years of work and visioning to transform the block of SW Montgomery Street between SW 6th and Broadway into a pedestrian plaza.

The Rainworks Challenge team is just one example of students coming together virtually to work on campus-based projects this fall, supported by the PSU Living Lab program. Each project includes students and faculty, as well as one or more representatives from PSU departments, including Planning, Construction, and Real Estate (PCRE); Campus Recreation; Campus Planning, and more. Below is a brief summary of the projects happening this quarter.

Accessible and digital campus art collection
PSU has a robust and diverse campus art collection. As part of a vision to transform PSU’s art collection into one that is fully accessible and available digitally, students in the University Studies “Work of Art” freshman inquiry course are exploring and collective narratives to tell the story of about a dozen new pieces of art that will be in the new 4th and Montgomery building.

The year-long project will serve as a pilot for possible replication and expansion in years to come, eventually growing to encompass the entire campus art collection. Students will ask and explore questions related to art and accessibility, how the community relates to and utilizes the campus art collection, and more. The project is a collaboration between University Studies, PCRE, Facilities & Property Management, the PSU Foundation, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Exploring user feedback and patterns at Campus Rec
Despite the enormous changes in operations due to COVID-19, PSU’s Campus Rec department remains committed to serving its members through a variety of programs, services, and facility offerings. To inform this work and help identify how data can be used to evaluate progress on their strategic plan, Campus Rec partnered this fall with an accounting course in the School of Business. In this project, students developed their own questions and attempted to answer these questions using available data. Students have produced an impressive variety of data visualizations, conclusions, and recommendations for Campus Rec staff to consider. Takeaways include seasonal trends in usage; ideas on what data Campus Rec can collect in the future; and thoughts on how program offerings could be adjusted to serve different segments of the PSU community. 

Stormwater & green infrastructure
It’s hard to walk more than a block on the PSU campus without passing some sort of stormwater infrastructure, whether a building that is home to an ecoroof, or a ground-level bioswale or flow-through planter. Combined, these campus features provide a variety of benefits, like reducing the amount of stormwater runoff from campus, providing cooling benefits, habitat for birds and insects, and more. Of the two current Living Lab projects focused on stormwater infrastructure, one project takes a big picture view, and the other focuses on a single site.

Mentioned previously, the Campus Rainworks Challenge is run annually by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PSU students have participated in the challenge in various ways throughout the years, with this year’s team impressively organized and led by the student ASCE chapter. Associate campus planner, Liz Hoekstra, described her experience partnering with students:

“Following up on a civil engineering capstone's work from last year, the students have designed green infrastructure features for the block of Montgomery Street between 6th and Broadway. The design of this street is something that we hope to eventually build out, so the project has really served as a unique real world learning experience. Despite the strange times and the project happening completely remotely, being able to work innovatively with PSU's students has been re-energizing for me and reminded me how much I love this aspect of my job! I was truly impressed with the excitement and level of talent that went towards this effort.”

Partially overlapping with the Rainworks Challenge team, is a second, longer-term stormwater project seeking to understand the overall performance of PSU’s infrastructure, and implications for a changing climate. Alexandra Vargas and Evan Suemori are the two Environmental Science & Management graduate students leading this effort. Their work includes building a stormwater management model to examine how existing infrastructure will handle changing rainfall patterns. In addition, they are helping PSU expand its use of the City’s Clean River Rewards, a program that offers bill discounts for implementation of stormwater infrastructure.

The Living Lab program aims to bridge the gap between opportunities in education and improved campus operations by bringing together a diverse team of campus stakeholders to solve a problem, explore an applied research question, or ignite an initiative that assists the University in achieving its sustainability goals. View projects currently seeking participants, pitch a Living Lab project, and learn about past projects online. If you have any questions or want to learn more about the projects mentioned above, or about the Living Lab program in general, email