Thursday, January 4, 2024

Mellon Foundation grants $1.5M to UTSA research coalition for the Urban Bird Project

Mellon Foundation grants $1.5M to UTSA research coalition for the Urban Bird Project

Students in SAISD use binoculars to bird watch.

MAY 15, 2023 — A transdisciplinary research team led by the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts (COLFA) has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. The funding will support the UTSA Urban Bird Project (UBP), a community science program that integrates avian ecology, Mexican American Studies and Indigenous studies through research about local, migratory and culturally significant birds and their environments.

Additionally, the funding provides financial support and mentorship to UTSA undergraduate and graduate students who participate in community-based research, and collaborative partnerships that broaden public access to environmental justice programs.

The project will begin in Fall 2023 with Community-Based Research in Environmental Justice: The Urban Bird Project, a new transdisciplinary, team-taught course for UTSA scholars in English, Mexican American Studies, higher education and environmental science. In partnership with members of the community, students will conduct interdisciplinary research on local and migratory birds within San Antonio, the South Texas border region, and Greater México.

“The project seeks to tell new stories about our human relationships to birds and other animals.”

“UTSA and our community will benefit greatly from the Mellon Foundation’s generous gift in support of our great students and our steadfast community-engaged research efforts,” said COLFA Dean Glenn Martinez. “This project will enhance our students’ academic experience by providing hands-on learning and research opportunities that advance environmental equity, while meaningfully engaging with impacted communities and ecosystems.”

Community-Based Research in Environmental Justice: The Urban Bird Project will be co-taught by Principal Investigator (PI) Kenneth Walker (associate professor of English), and Co-PIs Claudia García-Louis (Lutcher Brown associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies), Amelia King-Kostelac (assistant professor of practice in integrative biology), Lilliana Patricia Saldaña (associate professor of Mexican American Studies), and Jennifer Smith (assistant professor of integrative biology).  

“The project seeks to tell new stories about our human relationships to birds and other animals so we can affirm our deep interdependence with ecological systems and foster care and protection at a moment when half of the bird species across the world are in decline,” said Walker.

The course will feature field trips that center the ecological teachings of community experts and guest speakers to tell a more complete and decolonial story about land, place and identity across the South Texas Border Region and the Américas. Students will be linked to communities often neglected by universities and will be trained in community-engaged research to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges like species extinctions, preserving Indigenous knowledges and practices and climate change.

“This challenge is informed by ecological sciences, but care and protection for our planetary kin also needs to be informed by engaged practices with the humanities and social sciences to grapple with the many human dimensions of this problem. These issues are too important to be addressed by one discipline alone,” said King-Kostelac.

One of the UBP research projects will focus on assessing microplastic pollution as an environmental justice issue through avian ecology and community-engaged research. The project aims to investigate microplastic exposure of common backyard birds and the potential effects on avian fitness by monitoring nest boxes both on campus and in the broader San Antonio community. This research empowers community members to address issues of environmental justice in their neighborhoods while also increasing knowledge about an environmental contaminant of pressing concern.

Another university-community project will highlight the cultural knowledge of birds in local borderland communities, with students working directly with Indigenous and Mexican American groups in South Texas and Mexico to create an urban bird restor(y)ation digital repository that will archive the avian stories, knowledges and practices that borderlands people have maintained for generations.

Learn more about the UTSA Urban Bird Project.
⇒ Explore additional programs available in the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts

The Mellon grant presents a new higher education focus to a program previously funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hispanic Serving Institution Education Grant.

“As a Hispanic Serving Institution with majority Mexican American and Latine/x students, the UBP will strongly contribute to UTSA’s mission of bolstering student success and cultivating a new generation of Mexican American, Latine/x, and critically conscious researchers who will center ancestral and community knowledges in the creation of new environmental justice methodologies in Yanawana and the South Texas border region,” said Saldaña.

— Kenneth Walker, Claudia Garcia-Louis, Amelia King-Kostelac, Lilliana Saldaña, Jennifer Smith and Jordan Allen

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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