Schiller Grant Programs Support Innovative Programs for Lasting Change

By Stephanie M. McPherson

The Schiller Institute’s commitment to furthering interdisciplinary research has been making a large impact on the Boston College community and beyond, thanks to the accomplishments of faculty and student researchers who have received funding through the Institute’s internal grants program.  

The SI-GECS program (which stands for Schiller Institute Grants for Exploratory Collaborative Scholarship) funds collaborative projects in energy, environment, and health and launched in February 2021. The program operates as a seed grant program and the first cohort of grantees have enjoyed a number of tangible successes. To date, the 15 inaugural SI-GECS recipients have used this Schiller seed funding to expand their work through a total of 84 presentations, 19 published papers, and 27 new grant proposals—14 of which have been confirmed for funded totaling over $3 million. More than 40 Boston College students and postdoctoral fellows have been trained within the collaborations, getting a taste of what it’s like to conduct interdisciplinary research in these important fields. 

“The SI-GECS program has been successful beyond what even I had imagined. First, there is the pure joy in collaborating that faculty and students express when talking about their SI-GECS experiences. And then, the amazing quality of the scholarship that is being produced, as well as the ripple effects of the work on society writ large have really proven the value and impact of the program,” says Dr. Laura J. Steinberg, Seidner Family Executive Director for the Schiller Institute.

Descriptions of each SI-GECS project as well as complete listings of project outcomes, including the recently completed 2023 projects, are continuously updated on the Schiller website. The accomplishments of a few of the 2022 projects are highlighted below, and provide a sense for the variety of impacts that Schiller grantees are making. 

Fast Fashion Art Installation Tours the Country  

Julia DeVoy, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students and Programs in the Lynch School of Education, wanted to raise awareness around post-consumer textile waste. Through SI-GECS, she and her team created a public art installation titled AfterMath, which has been on display across the country, including at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. 

“The environmental and public health damage from fast fashion is much greater than people realize,” says DeVoy. “It creates all kinds of health issues in many parts of the world. [Degrading chemicals] leach into the water systems, the CO2 and methane going into the air. It's very bad for human health and it's very bad for other species in the ecosystem health.” 

The team took a four-prong approach for spreading information. First, they created a piece of art that could tour around the country and raise awareness. Second, they made a publicly updatable database to keep track of textile disposal policies in different areas of the country. Third, they published a research paper in the Journal of Waste Management and have submitted to further publications to make sure the data was shared with interested researchers and educators. Fourth, they developed educational modules for people who saw the artwork and were motivated to learn more.  

Through this work, they learned that recycled fashion tends to get shipped to Global South where it often sits in landfills that aren’t supported by environmental mitigation technology. So, with the support of a second SI-GECS grant, they created a board game that educates people on the fate of textiles.  

AfterMath continues to tour the country and garner interest. Locally, the sculpture has been on display at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art and Boston University’ School of Public Health. Dr. DeVoy also presented on the project at the Boston Public Library. In addition, there are plans for the sculpture to be displayed at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The team plans to further their public outreach via learning labs targeted at high schoolers and interactive tech embedded into the installment, and have applied for a public interest in technology grant and an NSF grant to support this work.

Providing Policy Recommendations to a Senate Committee 

Cal Halvorsen, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work, has focused much of his career on understanding the benefits of work for older Americans. His team’s SI-GECS-funded project explored the myriad health benefits of the national Senior Community Service Employment Program. This work led to them providing testimony and policy recommendations to Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) subcommittee to support her efforts in strengthening the Older Americans Act ahead of its reauthorization in 2024. 

“Right now, they look at the median, hourly wage of people once they leave SCSEP for jobs, and they look at the percentage of people who find jobs after leaving,” says Halvorsen. “These are super important indicators, but through my research we see SCSEP is so much more than simply a jobs program. It really boosts their self-confidence. It boosts their social networks, it reduces isolation. And we know that these are important to overall health, not just feel-good things.” 

He hopes the program will take these findings into consideration when defining metrics of the program’s success. His research also suggested the program should increase coordination with other American jobs bureaus and improve communication with program participants around benefits eligibility during the transition to jobs. The team has continued working with the Massachusetts state director of SCSEP to present these findings around the country.  

Every Rock Has a Story Nominated for Regional Emmy 

Ethan Baxter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, began his YouTube Channel “Every Rock Has a Story” during the lockdowns of 2020. In 2021, with support from SI-GECS, he began inviting on new co-hosts for each episode with the goals of reaching diverse groups of young students and inspiring wonder for the natural world. Season 3 of the show was recently nominated for a Boston/New England Regional Emmy in the Children/Youth category.  

“Turns out the geosciences are the least diverse of all sciences, and this a real problem that is holding back the geosciences as a field,” says Baxter. “I wanted to do something about this and make my new episodes part of the solution, rather than a perpetuation of the stereotypical old white guy as the face of geoscience.” 

Season 4 is funded in part by a SI-RITEA grant, through which he will partner with Boston Public Schools with the potential for filming a live show featuring students from a BPS elementary school. The funding also is allowing him to film overseas, including at the Jurassic Coast of England and in Sweden north of Stockholm. Season 4 premieres on Friday, September 15 and you can watch the trailer here

The show now also receives support from BC’s Center for Digital Innovation, and he will be applying to grants from NSF and the Templeton Foundation. He hopes to collaborate with schools, libraries, museums, and continue delivering the show into homes across the world.  

“ERHAS is an open, free, non-monetized, educational resource that will only be as impactful as the number of teachers, parents, and children who see it,” he says. “Getting out the word is the critical next step.”  

SI-GECS Grant Leads to External Funding 

G. Michael Barnett, professor of Teaching, Curriculum, and Society at BC’s Lynch School of Education, received a $1.3 million NSF grant to continue his SI-GECS seeded work of teaching kids how to grow vegetables at home with AI-enhanced tech. A member of his team, Avneet Hira, was also awarded a highly prestigious NSF CAREER grant. 

Barnett’s research has long focused on engaging lower-income, first generation to college youth to address food and environmental justice. 

“Our [SI-GECS] work directly addresses both these critical needs in our partner communities by engaging low-income youth along with their families in hydroponics, engineering design, and physical computing by building mini Do-It-Yourself (DIY) greenhouses to grow healthy produce,” says Barnett.  

The grant supported a one-year pilot allowing them to home in on the best ways to engage kids with this technology. It also allowed them to identify gaps in their experience and bring an environmental justice expert onto the team to help youth participants think about how to be change makers in their communities.  

This work will expand under the NSF grant for next three years through installations in Waltham and Springfield, Mass. and Lafayette, La, and through a partnership with Charles River Museum of Industry and its makerspace called the Charles River Collaboratory. The work is also being funded by the Schiller Institute’s new grants for Research in Targeted and Emerging Areas (SI-RITEA) program. 

The Schiller Impact 

Having an institute on campus dedicated to interdisciplinary research allows faculty to act on projects and connections that might otherwise go unexplored.  

“Designing and implementing projects like this can be difficult to get off the ground. You often need seed funding like this to go bigger because you need proof of concept. Schiller really made getting this proof of concept possible,” says Halvorsen.  

DeVoy is impressed with Schiller’s recognition that many complicated modern problems require cross disciplinary approaches, and their willingness to fund such solutions.  

“Highly complex problems have many rippling effects [and] some solutions actually cause more problems,” says DeVoy. “Schiller sees these need multifaceted, multimodal, multi-stakeholder perspectives to solve or even begin to address them.”  

The Institute is in its third year of funding projects through the SI-GECS program. More details about this year’s grantees and the Institute’s new grant program, SI-RITEA, can be found in this article and on the Institute’s website.