forest of trees

Undergraduate Sustainability Research Awards

Spoiler Alert: It’s (Almost) All about the Trees

Undergraduates tackle trash, solar sites, impact of green walls and deforestation, and how to build an outdoor classroom of hope

“The trees are in trouble,” writes Madeline Fabian ’23 in “The Oak & the Mailbox.”

“The U.S. Forest Service reported an estimated 36 million trees lost annually in urban/community areas between 2009 and 2014. This equates to around 175,000 acres of tree cover loss, or about 208 Central Parks each year, while impervious cover like pavement increased at 167,000 acres per year.”

Fabian’s paper focuses on a stately old oak tree near her dorm, with a mailbox located behind it. The life of the tree becomes a launching point to consider the role of trees in combating climate change and their vulnerability to it, as well as the ways they contribute to well-being.

“Even in the Northeast, trees are at risk,” writes Fabian. “Here in Massachusetts, around 5,000 acres of forest are lost each year, equal to about half the size of Provincetown.” Whether pests, or “human construction projects, even well-intentioned environmental ones like solar farms or wind turbines, threaten the health of nearby trees … the list of threats is unremitting.”

Max Feldman ’24 also researched the plight of trees. In “A Carbon Conundrum: Siting for Solar Energy Generation,” Feldman asks us to look beyond the obvious math. “An acre of solar panels … reduces approximately 144 to 166 times more carbon dioxide per year than an acre of forest.” But, Feldman writes, “there are other arguments that are not so ‘clear cut,’ if you’ll pardon the pun,” such as the role of forests in carbon sequestration and the positive impacts of new trees. He calls on solar planners to explore alternative sites such as old landfills, parking lots, and farmland.

In “Trash Talk: Rethinking the Notion of Waste,” Shivaangi Salhotra ’26 points at things trees depend on, like air and groundwater, that are being dangerously polluted by trash.

Salhotra’s paper outlines the forces at play allowing the Global North to send its trash to the Global South. Salhotra’s paper asks difficult questions, such as “What does it mean to send our waste elsewhere, so we no longer have to see it? Correspondingly, what does it mean to build these structures of unworthiness near and on lands where people live? Are they, too, worthless?”

Diverse native plants, trees, and shrubs are part of a proposed “Community Classroom of Hope” (CCOH). Jo Fuchs ’24 and Hannah Gould ’25 call for a new residential permaculture garden program at UMass, centered in the North residential area. With a foundation based on “earth care, people care, and fair share,” and working toward creating an environment that prioritizes health and well-being, using permaculture design, the program “will create spaces that promote diversity, creativity, and inclusivity through intentional plantings and structures.” Fuchs and Gold, both students in the Stockbridge Sustainable Food and Farming major, propose this classroom as a solution for the “feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and pessimism that affect college students.” The CCOH is slated to be completed in 2023.

Jo Fuchs and Hannah Gould

How to bring the positive effects of trees and nature into built environments? Despite the long history of green walls, “only recently have we begun to quantify their benefits and exploit them through intentional design,” writes Nathaniel Wright ’23 in “Thermal Efficiencies of Green Walls in Building Structures in the Northeast United States.” Wright investigated the thermal performance of green walls on buildings by constructing walls and reading over 60 academic papers related to their thermal insulative benefits to write a literature review.

Wright found that “existing literature widely agrees that green walls are passive energy saving tools, and in some cases, they can be extremely effective at regulating heat flow in building envelopes. However, given the complexity of these systems, there is a lack of data on the many variables involved and their interactions,” writes Wright. Despite being more complex than green roofs, “green walls offer more potential in the available surface area offered and have stronger social impacts as they are more visible.”

Every year, the Libraries’ Undergraduate Sustainability Research Awards promotes in-depth understanding of sustainability topics, research strategies, and the use of library resources. Five winners were honored in April and awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to a generous donor to the UMass Amherst Libraries’ Sustainability Fund. The winning research papers can be read in ScholarWorks@UMassAmherst under Sustainable UMass students showcase. The annual competition is open to all enrolled undergraduates. The UMass Amherst Libraries Sustainability Fund allows for philanthropic support to expand the Libraries’ collections, exhibits, and activities related to environmental, economic, and social sustainability as well as support for more than 300 sustainability-related courses on campus and the School of Earth and Sustainability.