TEES partners with Texas A&M-Kingsville for $5 million NSF grant for environmental research center

October 17, 2007
| By: Aubrey Bloom

KINGSVILLE, Texas - The Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) has collaborated with an environmental research center based in the Frank H. Dotterweich College of Engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville to garner the center's second five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program. A&M-Kingsville's Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology-Research on Environmental Sustainability of Semi-Arid Coastal Areas (CREST-RESSACA) was one of only two established CREST programs in the nation to receive a $5 million renewal grant this year. The other is based at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. The A&M-Kingsville center was founded when it received its first $5 million grant in 2002. TEES, the engineering research agency of the State of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System, assisted in securing the grant, which it now administers as the university's collaborator on the CREST-RESSACA. TEES Director Dr. K. Lee Peddicord said, "TEES congratulates Texas A&M University-Kingsville and is pleased to work with the university to obtain this award. This is just one example of how the agency supports engineering research across the state. The CREST renewal will provide greater opportunities in South Texas for environmental engineering students to participate in nationally recognized research." The CREST program helps minority-serving institutions enhance their research abilities. The program addresses the significant under-representation of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A&M-Kingsville is classified as a Hispanic-serving institution, which is defined as a college or university with Hispanic enrollment of at least 25 percent; A&M-Kingsville's Hispanic enrollment is more than 60 percent. A&M-Kingsville's CREST is the only one in the nation that focuses on environmental sustainability of semi-arid coastal areas. Its work is carried out by a group of A&M-Kingsville faculty from the environmental engineering department, other engineering departments and faculty from other disciplines, such as physics and geosciences. Dr. Kuruvilla John, associate dean of the College of Engineering, is the director of the center. "I was very excited when we got the news," said John about receiving the second grant. "In particular, I was excited for the students, the faculty and the staff that have been an integral part of CREST-RESSACA success. The continued funding acknowledges that the NSF recognizes our success at meeting our development goals." The new grant furthers the center's efforts to be self-sustaining, John added. "We will build on the success we've had in the first five years to become a world-class entity that can sustain itself beyond the grant funding," said John. "In the next five years, we want CREST-RESSACA to be the first name people think of when it comes to research on environmental sustainability of semi-arid coastal areas." The grant funding will further the center's work in four major areas: Increase the number of environmental engineering doctoral degrees to between 15 and 20: In its first five years, CREST-RESSACA has provided support to graduates who have earned four Ph.D.s, 16 M.S. degrees and 24 undergraduate degrees. Currently, the total number of students supported by CREST-RESSACA, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, equals 59 undergraduates, 25 M.S. students and 12 Ph.D. students. "We don't just want to mentor students," John said. "We want them to graduate and be eminently employable and contributing to our society." Also, undergraduate research opportunities in CREST-RESSACA have generated a lot of interest among students in environmental engineering, and the College of Engineering is establishing a B.S. program in the field, as well as a new M.S. degree in environmental management science, both scheduled to be introduced in 2008. Continue environmental research in the Coastal Bend and Rio Grande Valley: CREST-RESSACA research funded by the grant includes assessing air quality in Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend; increasing the effectiveness of Texas' largest reverse osmosis desalination plant located in Brownsville; finding natural solutions to remove odorous gases from the emissions of wastewater plants in Brownsville; supporting groundwater management districts by using established water resources models; and using compost products to enhance the nutrition and water-holding capabilities of soil in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Working alongside faculty in these projects are undergraduate and graduate students, earning both professional and scholastic experience in the lab and out in the field. Increase partnerships in the U.S. and Mexico to address environmental issues: Partnerships planned for the next five years include Sandia National Laboratories, who will work with CREST-RESSACA on water resource management and desalination research; the University of Texas at Brownsville, whose faculty are involved in CREST-RESSACA undergraduate research efforts; and Texas A&M International University in Laredo, where two environmental engineering researchers have established joint projects focusing on water contaminants. In addition, the center will continue educational and research partnerships south of the border. The number of students from Mexico pursuing master¿s or doctoral degrees at A&M-Kingsville has nearly tripled since 2003, due in large part to collaborative efforts through CREST-RESSACA. Also, some research work of the center - in groundwater management, air emission control and production of fuel from algae and citrus waste - addresses environmental issues faced in Mexico. This research was shared with Mexican scientists, lawmakers and students at a CREST-RESSACA conference in November 2006, entitled "Environmental Sustainability: U.S.-Mexico Issues," held in Monterrey, Mexico. The longest-running partnership CREST-RESSACA has is with the Texas Engineering Experiment Station. This state agency, part of the Texas A&M University System, has contributed to preparation of both NSF grant proposals and will stay with CREST-RESSACA as its fiscal agent for the center's development. Continue public education efforts for lawmakers, educators and the public: CREST-RESSACA shares its work with others outside of the field of environmental engineering. The center's annual conference brings lawmakers and the public together to hear center researchers discuss their projects and the implications of their findings. The center's faculty work with a host of city and regional governments, such as conducting air quality studies with the City of Corpus Christi and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and storm water management studies for the Lower Rio Grande Valley municipalities. CREST-RESSACA research work and the faculty behind it will continue to be highly involved in two College of Engineering summer programs. Maymester brings area community college students to the campus for two weeks each May, where they receive hands-on research experience as guest members of science, math and engineering research teams, including those at CREST-RESSACA. The Research Experience for Teachers program enables CREST-RESSACA and other engineering faculty to share their research efforts with area middle and high school educators, who then take that experience into their classrooms for their students.

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