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College of Arts and Architecture Faculty Part of $2.5 Million Marcellus Shale Education Grant

Faculty from the College of Arts and Architecture are part of a multidisciplinary team of Penn State researchers that has recently been approved for a $2.5 million education program grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Michael Arthur, co-director of the University's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research and professor of geosciences, is leading the grant.

“Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy” aims to enhance the general public’s understanding of science, engineering and energy through community-based activities that foster constructive dialogue, engage locals in science and research, and develop “Marcellus Community Scientists” who can transfer knowledge to their respective communities.

In addition to the College of Arts and Architecture, the three-year project includes researchers from the colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and Education. “This is an interdisciplinary, campus-wide effort to study and engage a critical issue facing Pennsylvania,” said Timothy Murtha, associate professor of landscape architecture and one of the project’s researchers. “Each of our small parts contributes to that greater goal.”

While Pennsylvania has a history of natural resource extraction, the magnitude of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry is posing social, economic and environmental challenges for rural communities experiencing drilling activity.  The NSF program funding this initiative targets informal education for adults in four disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—vital for community-level understanding of the implications of this rapidly evolving industry.

“This NSF project will address those challenges as it will provide opportunities for the residents of the Marcellus region to gain skills in scientific inquiry and build an understanding of science and energy that can be used in managing change,” Arthur said.

Structured around several science, energy, engineering, planning and design topics, the project will empower communities to make informed opinions and decisions. Those topics include an overview of the U.S. energy picture including supply and demand; resource needs of energy sources and climate change; perceptions of risk and perspectives on “acceptable” and “unacceptable” risks; and the potential environmental impacts of drilling and development on forest ecosystems, wildlife habitats, water quality and introduction of invasive species.

With a focus on adults—those people who are making decisions about land leasing, community regulations and other issues related to Marcellus Shale development—the project is designed around four closely integrated activities with overlapping content.

Those activities include community-based theatre performances on risk and uncertainty produced by faculty members in the School of Theatre.

“Community-based performance is a unique and effective way to further the understanding of the science for all affected,” said William Doan, professor of theatre and associate dean for administration, research and graduate studies in the College of Arts and Architecture. “It engages community members to enter the discussion through the exchange of ideas and constructive debate.”

The participation of theatre artists in this important NSF grant is a first for Penn State, the College of Arts and Architecture, and the School of Theatre, Doan said, adding that it’s a “testament to the college's strategic goals to engage in interdisciplinary and collaborative work across the campus.”

The project will also utilize environmental planning workshops, overseen by Murtha and Brian Orland, professor of landscape architecture. Those workshops will use place-based and data-driven visualizations as a basis for community discussion about the environmental and community changes accompanying Marcellus Shale activity.

“The planning workshops are a natural extension of the engaged problem-based and student-centered learning of a typical design studio class,” Orland said. “Rule-based design strategies provide an immediate connection to the science education goals of this project. In essence we’re taking the design studio to the streets.”           

“Marcellus Matters” will be coordinated by the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, which is supported by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the College of Agricultural Sciences, the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, and Penn State Outreach. Penn State Extension, which has provided informational sessions on Marcellus Shale development since 2005, will have a key role in project implementation.

Other researchers on the project include Chuck Anderson, Earth and Environmental Systems Institute; Brian Bills, Center for Environmental Informatics; Seth Blumsack, Energy Policy; Kathy Brasier, Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology; Barbara Korner, Theatre; Douglas Miller, Center for Environmental Informatics; Esther Prins, Adult Education; Eliza Richardson, Geosciences; Susan Russell, Theatre; and David Yoxtheimer, Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.