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From the Nile to the Sundarbans: the Undergraduate Capstones

By Lin Ye

This spring, students in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development presented innovative solutions to sustainability issues as part of their Capstone Workshop. Under the guidance of professors Stuart Gaffin, Radley Horton and Michael Steckler, students applied the knowledge they gained from the program to analyze and provide recommendations to challenges faced by real world clients. The clients ranged from the United States Military Academy at West Point to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Read more about the projects below.

Strategies for Regional Cooperation in the Nile River Basin
20150501-IMG_1010-2The goal of this project was to examine conflicts stemming from water scarcity in the 21st century and to propose mitigation techniques for the region. This project outlined strategies for coordination and cooperation in the Nile River Basin and created a framework of cooperation to increase food across the basin, water, and energy security while reducing potential for future conflict over development and use of the Nile’s resources.

Client: United States Military Academy at West Point
Team members: Declan Devlin, Jose Flores, Coralie Harouni, Alain Jabbour, Teo King, Katja Lazar, Kyul Rhee, Magaly Santillan, and Norman Shafto

United States Correctional Sector Climate Vulnerabilities Assessment
In this project, students worked with client Daniel Holt, a visiting fellow at the Columbia Law School, to address the understudied question: “How will a hotter planet, extreme heat waves, increased severity of storm surges and flooding affect the United States correctional sector?” After thorough research, the team concluded that climate change will indeed affect the correctional sector. They recommended that efforts be taken to educate correctional facility administrators and facilities staff about the potential impacts if no mitigation strategy is put in place, and that more funding be allocated to the correctional sector for climate change adaptation strategies at national, regional, and local levels.

Client: Daniel Holt, Visiting Scholar, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School
Team members: Alyssa Menz, Francesca Audia, Tori Gilbert, Azania Umoja, Lanti Moye-McLaren, Diane Jung, and Najin Kim

Environmental Impact Statement Analysis
This team reviewed Environmental Impact Statements and identified where the documents discuss climate change-related considerations. Students analyzed how the statements address the future impacts of climate change and their relationship to the proposed action and its environmental consequences. Students concluded that climate change is mentioned consistently within the impact statements, but minor flaws need to be adjusted. One flaw in particular was that components such as “indirect impacts of the life-cycle emissions” and “upstream/downstream emissions” were not present in the reports.

Client: Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia Law School
Team members: Paul Ross, Myriam Amri, Mai Uchida, and Nicole Bauer

Analyzing the Correlation between Travel Distance to Fresh Pond Water Sources and Income Expenditure
The goal of this project was to test the hypothesis that household expenses/annual income in the Bengali Sundarbans region in Bangladesh are directly related to travel time to a freshwater pond. Students surveyed 14 villages and 220 households during the semester. They collected 1310 variables to test the hypothesis by using following formula:

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 3.36.51 PM

The team concluded that, surprisingly, no clear correlation existed between travel time and higher expenses, yet the test yielded statically significant results and a correlation did exist between travel time and higher annual income.

Client: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Team members: Yassamin Issapour, Dan Louis, and Diana Montoya

Spatiotemporal Mapping of Agricultural Phenology in the Southern Delta of Bangladesh
The agriculture industry represents 15 percent of Bangladesh’s annual GDP and 47 percent of the total labor force (CIA, 2015). In this project, students examined the interaction of riverine processes, hydrology, geology, climate change, culture and sustainable development in the southern delta region of Bangladesh. Students drew conclusions through research questions such as, “Will ground truthing reveal any similarities or differences in what remote sensing models show? And how do these survey data fit into the larger context of agriculture in the Khulna district?” Research methods such as field verification and remote sensing were used during the investigation.

Client: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Team members: Zhibek Issakyzy, Joelle Boxer, Monica Carty, and Khristopher Nicholas

Analyzing the Correlation between Disaster Preparedness and Community-Level Variables in the Bengali Sundarbans
20150501-IMG_1009According to the Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific, “Bangladesh is geographically and socially vulnerable to natural disasters. There are significant strides in disaster management, but coordination systems are still suboptimal.” With that in mind, the project revolved around the following two questions: How did the levels of disaster preparedness and response in the same Bangladeshi communities change over recent years in response to Cyclone Aila?; and what, if any, are the correlations between a community’s level of disaster preparedness and two community-level variables, income and occupation? How were each of these variables impacted by Cyclone Aila.

Students solved the puzzles by using research methods include matching questionnaires, data cleaning, focusing research questions, mapping and developing community profiles.

Client: Professor Michael Steckler, Lamont-Doherty Observatory and Professor Brooke Ackerly, Vanderbilt University
Team members: Noeleen Advani, Miriam Kaplan, and Samantha Schipani

You can watch a video of the presentations online.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems, offered through The Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the sustainable development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Jessica Sotomayor at

Lin Ye is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. He was a graduate student at Columbia University and graduated in 2015 with a Master of Science degree in Sustainability Management.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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