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City Semester Pittsburgh Goes Virtual This Summer

Virtual sustainability talk with City Semester Pittsburgh participants.
Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer, leads a virtual talk with students from the City Semester Pittsburgh program.

Penn State Center Pittsburgh’s City Semester program kicked off last week, looking a little different than in years past.

The program is a unique experience that provides Penn State students with an opportunity to make a tangible impact on the Pittsburgh community and their future. Typically, students are fully immersed in the program — living in downtown Pittsburgh, interning for 20–40 hours a week with a local partner, attending a course on urban sustainability at Penn State Center Pittsburgh’s space in the Energy Innovation Center, and getting a better understanding of the Pittsburgh community’s resiliency.

However, this summer’s City Semester session shifted to a virtual program due to COVID-19 and the University’s directive to conduct all courses and activities remotely. For the next 12 weeks, students will meet virtually and complete all course work and internship responsibilities remotely.

“We have a great group of students joining us this summer for an alternate version of the City Semester program,” said Tom Bartnik, Penn State Center Pittsburgh director. “It looks a little different, as all our situations do, but we believe these exceptional students will help to make this a great semester and find major value in the program, working with local community partners and interacting with local sustainability leaders, even from the safety of their own homes.”

Seven Penn State students across several majors and backgrounds were accepted into the program this summer. Students from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the College of the Liberal Arts, the College of Arts and Architecture, and the College of Agricultural Sciences join the program this summer to explore real-world issues in climate action, community development, clean energy, landscape architecture, public policy, ecology, urban equality, education, and more.

The urban sustainability course takes place every Tuesday evening via Zoom meeting. During the first week of the class, two guest speakers joined the students to introduce the course and urban sustainability in Pittsburgh. Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer, posed the question “What is Urban Sustainability?” and talked about how the city of Pittsburgh addresses the multi-faceted issue of resiliency. Jeaneen Zappa, executive director at Conservation Consultants, Inc., discussed sustainability, justice, and inequality.

Throughout the semester, topics will cover framing sustainability, dimensions of sustainability, and improving sustainability. Some of the guest speakers will include Joel Perkovich, PLA, ASLA, from Allegheny County Parks Department to discuss sustainability by design; Karlin Lamberto from Pittsburgh Food Policy Council to discuss urban food; James Stitt from Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to discuss urban water; Jim Price from Sustainable Pittsburgh to discuss civic volunteerism; Annie Regan from PennFuture to discuss legislative, regulatory, and judicial action; and many other engaging and interesting speakers.

In addition to the weekly online course, students are partnered with local businesses and organizations to complete a virtual internships. This semester’s partners include Pennsylvania Solar Center, StormWorks, New Sun Rising – Millvale, and Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. Four of the students will work together as a team on Pennsylvania Solar Center’s summer project, which includes engaging 50–80 college students for an advocacy program for renewable energy workforce legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the conclusion of the course, students will present their final project during an online open house event including fellow students, community partners, and other leaders in the Pittsburgh and Penn State communities. For the project, students will present a video or poster detailing their experience with the program, citing one of the sustainability topics from the course that could apply to their internship in Pittsburgh or their major.

Penn State Center Pittsburgh plans to host the City Semester program again this fall and is prepared to deliver the program in-person or virtually, based on direction from the University and Allegheny County.

“Though students and faculty may be uncertain about how life and classes will look in the fall, we will design an option for all situations and preferences,” said Bartnik. “Our goal is to work with students to provide a positive experience that will impact their future education and careers — whether that is online, in-person, or a mixture of both.”

All Penn State students are invited to apply for the fall session of City Semester Pittsburgh by Monday, June 15. Learn more about the program and apply for fall.