A Call for Collaboration

Sandra Larson, BEnvE 2023, addressed her fellow graduates on graduation day. Her message highlighted some of the big challenges they will face and the need for collaboration in addressing these challenging issues. 

CEGE magazine caught up with Larson before she left campus to begin her new life as a civil/environmental engineer with Carlson McCain. We were able to learn more about her convictions regarding challenging engineering problems and the role of collaboration.

“We are graduating at a critical point in history. Just within our fields of study, society is faced with issues of clean water scarcity, need for climate resilient infrastructure, and increasing tensions regarding agricultural related resource use.
… the undergrad lounge right around the corner perfectly encapsulates the climate of the department. I’ve spent countless hours in that lounge, and lifelong friendships have started out of the desperate act of walking over to a table to ask for homework help, “Hey, I’m stuck on this problem.” Such “bridge building” eventually gave way to more complex and, therefore, more fun conversations.”

— Sandra Larson, commencement address

CEGE: In your commencement address, you highlighted collaboration. I understand that was a big part of your experience growing up in a small town. Can you tell us why?

Sandra Larson standing in the Charles Fairhurst Atrium in the Civil Engineering Building

SL: My home town, Sheyenne, North Dakota, has a population of about 150 people. All the community members pitch in on everything just to keep the town running; I don’t think even the mayor gets paid. So, all of my role models growing up were volunteers. In a small community, you just have to get along with each other to make things work. So collaboration was built in to my experience.

My mom is, I would say, the main city organizer. After she graduated with a double major in Home Economics and Business, she travelled to conventions and trade shows demonstrating sewing machines. Now she is a community development organizer as a volunteer. She has a lot of motivation and is my inspiration for getting involved. I grew up doing lots of work for the town, too.

One of our projects started out as my 4H project. The town has a declining population and several houses had been abandoned, some were falling down and kind of dangerous. In junior high I started by cataloging the buildings, then went to the county treasurer’s office and found out who was or was not paying taxes on them. I read the city ordinances, which were very out-of-date. I went to the city council meeting and said I found 16 abandoned buildings and gave them the addresses of the owners, and asked if we could find some recourse, maybe send a letter, or find out about state resources for tearing down dangerous buildings, or maybe raise funds to deal with the buildings.

Back then, we had one city-owned building on Main Street that was dangerous and infested with stray cats. We raised some funds and got that building torn down, so Main Street started getting cleaned up. But not much else happened because of the town’s limited resources.

Through that project, I got involved in the Main Street Initiative, a student advisory committee started by the governor of North Dakota. And through that, I became aware that the state had a surplus for community development money and offered a lot of grants. So my mom and I started writing grants. 

We started getting a few $1,000 and $1,500 grants to restore the town hall where a lot of community events happen. Then in the fall of 2023, we got a grant for $150,000. With that we were able to incorporate a nonprofit, Sheyenne GRIT, with a focus on businesses in town, children and child care, and housing with a larger goal of bringing more people into the community. Our strategy is to buy houses that are empty, fix them up, and sell them to new community members. The first home is on the market now.

So I have seen how collaboration works and what can be accomplished to solve big problems.

CEGE: Your commitment to the environment began in your early years, too. Tell us some things that fostered your commitment to the environment.

SL: My family values time spent outside; being outside was always considered more productive than anything inside. I soon discovered that even reading a book outside in the hammock was preferred to cleaning my room inside. I think my mom figured out that I was getting out of my chores, but worst case, I would end up being outside too much and reading too many books. It seemed like a win-win! Growing up I learned a love for animals and nature, for camping, etc. 

My family, like all the families I grew up around, values the land. Our farm is on the same land that my grandfather and great grandfather farmed. Although during the drought and farm crisis of the 1980s, my grandpa went bankrupt and had to sell everything. My dad dropped out of college to come back and buy back some of the land. He kept farming and kept buying back more land. He later finished his degree in animal husbandry. He taught me to value the land and how education can help preserve the land. 

As I got older, I got more interested in politics, environmental activism. I started reading books about climate change and feeling an urgency to do something about it. That was a motivation for me to get an environmental engineering degree.

CEGE: Was there a particular event that sparked your interest?

SL: The summer before college when I went to the National Youth Science Camp (NYSC, sponsored by the National Youth Science Academy) in West Virginia. Two delegates from every state and some countries attend. It is one month long, and they pay for everything. Really good food, too, but it is in the national radio quiet zone, so no cell phone access. 

We had two lectures and a seminar every day with scientists and engineers at the top of their fields. Daniel Cohan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University gave an inspiring lecture about climate change, what we can do about it, and what environmental engineers do about it. I thought, ‘I’d like to do what he does.’

He also led us in a seminar where students pretended to be ambassadors from different countries at the United Nations Climate Negotiations. Me and someone from Utah were Russia, we were trying to be the sticking point that made the other countries not agree. 

Cohan had made a computer program to simulate if one country planted this many trees and gave this much money to developing countries, how that would influence the global temperature increase. It was cool; it was a big reason why I went into environmental engineering. A simple experience like that can change your life! 

CEGE: You have had some influential experiences at the U, too. One I have heard you talk about is your internship at Yosemite National Park.

SL: Yes, I loved my internship at Yosemite! I never miss a chance to talk about that!

My internship was a civil/environmental engineering Pathways Internship through the federal government. The internship was for facilities management within Yosemite National Park. Few national parks have an engineering department, but because of the high visitor rates, Yosemite does. They need to maintain water infrastructure and buildings at campgrounds, etc. Yosemite has project managers and interns, no one in between. So as interns, we did a lot of more advanced work. Each engineer there had their own intern; it was a really good opportunity to have a one-on-one mentorship with an engineer. 

If I went anywhere else or pursued a different degree, I don’t know that I would have had that opportunity; it just lined up really well. It was a civil/environmental internship, so I was technically qualified for it, and the project I did cataloging buildings in my home town really impressed the interviewers, so that gave me a hand up.

Yosemite has several old buildings and structures in the park that are not used very often and many are not documented at all. I would hike out to find these old buildings, structures, signs, etc., and would catalog them and map the exact locations. 

Because I was an environmental engineering student, I also cataloged the outhouses. In the 70s, the park installed Clivus Multrum composting toilets, which don’t work anymore. So these composting toilets get thousands of visitors every day and they are just not working. The waste has to be hauled out using helicopters or mules, which is very expensive and not sustainable. They are trying to convert over to urine diverting composting toilets. I researched how often each toilet was visited, did some calculations, and designed a leach line for a new toilet at the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In a national park, if something is over 50 years old, it is historic and cannot be removed. We could not even pick up trash over 50 years old; a beer bottle from the 60s is historic trash that cannot be thrown away. Park staff can maintain old buildings, but they cannot redesign them, so structures nearing the 50-year mark need to be evaluated. Engineers are trying to keep ahead of things and figure out how to phase out some of the old structures.

For example, Whitewolf Campground has cabins as well as tent camping and used to use a lagoon system. Hiking past the Whitewolf Campground into the wilderness, you come across a huge lagoon full of green water that hasn’t been used for a long while. I worked on a project to replace that lagoon with a mounded drain field. (My last term in CEGE, I took Humanitarian Engineering, and we learned to design a mounded drain field.) 

The geology in Yosemite makes composting toilets and sewer stuff tricky. Engineers have to be creative. Because Yosemite is on granite and has virtually no soil layer, the drain field has to be above ground. Solar panels were used to power the pumps to pump the sewage up into the drain field. 

Engineering assumptions in Yosemite are very different from assumptions in Minnesota. There, engineers had to add a layer of wire mesh to prevent marmots from digging through and short circuiting the drain field system. They also have to watch out for bears that like to swim at the Yosemite water treatment plant.

My internship in Yosemite was a really valuable experience. I was able to apply my math and science skills to out-of-the-ordinary engineering problems; I think CEGE prepared me pretty well for that. It was also so fun and beautiful. I worked with good people who took me out of my comfort zone, and it tested my physical and mental limits.

CEGE: What was your Capstone Project like?

SL: My Capstone project was a multi-disciplinary project designing a transmission power line with mentors Noel Klinnert and Cody Holmes at Xcel Energy. My teammates were Hector Ramos Berrios, who worked on the structural design of the tower, and Emily Kramer, who worked on the geotechnical design of the deep foundation. I worked on the sustainability and environmental aspects. 

I learned about permits these projects have to apply for, like the license to cross public water or lands and Siting and Land Rights Reviews. These were outside my scope of experience. The Siting and Land Rights Review had an interesting checklist about endangered or protected species in Minnesota. If any species are impacted by your project, you have to submit a form to the Minnesota DNR. Excel Energy’s Siting and Land Rights Reviewer was very overworked, very busy. She gave me a structure and a lot of good pointers. To address every concern would have been too much for this class, so she created a case study that included many aspects—protected species, crossing a water body, and a nearby protected wetland. It was interesting. I would be interested in a policy and permitting job in the future. 

CEGE: From your current vantage point, what do you think makes an effective engineer?

SL: For me, an effective engineer would be one who listens and works with people to solve a problem. 

When I first got fired up about climate change, I often had arguments with my relatives or classmates; buzz words would set people off. It was not productive. It is better to find something in common and build on that.

Now, I can talk with my old classmates about how farming has changed, and how the weather has changed and that farmers are being affected first. I don’t talk about climate change. Talking with a friend from high school I said, “In school I am learning that we have to design for storms that are 10% worse but happen less often.” He said, “Yeah, I understand; we just had this bad storm.” That is what I’ve learned about talking constructively with people who have different points of view. You have to learn to talk with people or nothing will get done.

An engineer knows how to model something on a computer, they know the equation to use, they know principles and theory, but they will not have the same real-world expertise with the situation. For example, a farmer will have greater expertise about how to apply fertilizer. As a farm girl, I sometimes found myself defending farmers when a class was talking about fertilizing or drain tiling. A lot of people don’t understand that in North Dakota, we do not use irrigation; it is not cost effective to irrigate. We have one irrigation pivot on my farm. Things like drain tiling will be a necessary farming practice to regulate water in the fields when there are more intense rain storms and droughts. 

Engineers or policy makers don’t always consider how much a farmer wants to preserve land that has been in their family for generations. They might assume that farm practices pollute the land and water. I have tried to fight against that narrative. There is a difference between corporate farms that maximize profits and family farms like I grew up around. Farmers want the best for the land. They invest in expensive technologies and pay an agronomist to help them apply fertilizer carefully acre by acre. They don’t want to waste fertilizer; they don’t want fertilizer running into the rivers. 

Engineers and policy makers need to listen and think of creative ways that farming can be done more sustainably. Communicating with farmers can be complicated. You have to change how you talk about issues. Find common ground and start from there.

I think a lack of collaboration is the one barrier preventing real progress towards meaningful solutions. We need engineers to be collaborators in sustainable practices, and we need them to be partners in environmental policy adoption.

I think CEGE prepared us well to be collaborators and problem solvers.