Students at the University of Montana are solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. I like to think of UM as Missoula’s own think tank. The University of Montana and Davidson Honors College are filled with intelligent and creative students and faculty from myriad disciplines ready and willing to help solve some of the major challenges of today from affordable housing to sustainability.

In 2016, two Davidson Honors College students, along with the dean and representatives from the City of Missoula, collaborated to develop a program that harnesses some of that intellectual horsepower and sends it back out into the community. Through this partnership, Questions for Undergraduates Exploring Social Topics, or QUEST, was born.

Noah Hill, co-founder of the QUEST program, says: “The QUEST program was started because we wanted to provide students with an opportunity that combines a robust research experience with making a difference in the community. This year the challenge is around sustainability, which is a great topic because it requires our students to combine academic research and real-world applications for their projects to be successful.”  

This year, nearly 20 Davidson Honors College students from majors across campus, ranging from freshmen to seniors, are working on the second annual QUEST challenge: to develop a proposal for the City’s ZERO by FIFTY Pathway to Zero Waste effort. The winning team will receive a scholarship and an internship with the City to help advance the City’s goal of reducing landfill waste by 90 percent by 2050.

In addition to working with their fellow classmates, the students are learning from and working directly with the City throughout the process. Chase Jones, Energy Conservation & Climate Action Coordinator for the City of Missoula says of QUEST, "Under QUEST, the pathway to solutions is set up to succeed from research and development during the academic calendar year, to paid internship with the City for the winning student team to implement their idea and project during the Summer of 2019. This program and collaboration exemplifies the long history of the town-gown relationship... There are many wins in that scenario, and the City couldn’t be more grateful."  

I have had the joy of working with students and leading both the academic and administrative component of the QUEST program for the last two years. This year, the budding ideas our six teams will present to a panel of judges in April include ways to promote composting, recycling, reuse and more across campus and into the community. Our teams are addressing Missoula’s Zero Waste goal using the four ZERO by FIFTY pathways: access, infrastructure, education and policy. Through their course work, they are looking at different approaches globally, nationally and locally by reviewing case studies and exploring challenges they may face in implementing a plan.

It has been thrilling to watch the student perspectives evolve and change over the past short months. They are changing their own behavior as it relates to sustainability and looking what will be most feasible to expand upon in the City’s already robust plan. One team has implemented a personal Zero Waste policy, while other teams are planning to educate their peers about upstream sustainability options for businesses, for example, while others are proposing local policy measures. QUEST participants will share these concepts with fellow students and other members of the Missoula community.

As is often the case, I believe students’ insights show why QUEST is such a valuable and worthwhile experience for both the students and the community:

“I love that through QUEST, students can make a substantial impact on the community, while having the opportunity to research real issues. Our focus on sustainability this year is exciting and a great way to help the city reach zero waste by 2050.”  ~Ellie, mathematics, senior

“QUEST is an incredible program that lends an experience unlike any other offered in a classroom. I gained real-world experiences that have prepared me for a career in any field, most importantly though, sustainable development. I now have a deep understanding of implementing environmentally friendly and sustainable projects within city limits.” ~Bailey, political science, sophomore

“QUEST has the potential to have incredibly far-reaching impacts. The students involved have the opportunity to work on one of the largest issues facing our society today: how to live sustainably…This project offers students the perfect bridge between the academic world and the working world on a topic which effects every facet of life, and I personally cannot wait to see what kind of change the teams bring.” ~Fiona, Spanish and education, sophomore

“The opportunity the QUEST program offers undergrads to spur actual change is unlike any other and a worthwhile challenge.” ~Teigan, economics and Spanish, junior

“This year the focus on sustainability is not only relevant to Missoula but also crucial around the world. As a peer adviser and Climate Change Studies minor, I am pushing my students to think global for a local solution to Missoula's sustainability.” ~Matt, economics, junior

With QUEST, students continue to learn how to apply their classroom experiences in a hands-on way with a real impact beyond campus.

Kaetlyn Cordingley is Interim Director of Davidson Honors College at the University of Montana.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

December 3. Weather, Climate and Our Watershed. Clark Fork Coalition scientists will discuss how this winter’s forecast & long term climate predictions will affect our watershed – and how we can build resiliency for our river. Conflux Brewing Co., 200 E. Main St, Missoula. 6 p.m.

December 6. Climate Smart Missoula’s Year 3 Celebration. Help celebrate 3 years of Climate Smart Missoula! Food, beverages, and annual Smarty Pants awards honoring folks who have made an impact on local climate action this year. Goodworks Ventures, 129 W Alder, Missoula. 5 – 8 p.m.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for the upcoming months HERE.