Fall 2023

Selected Projects:

#3 with Professor Zihao Zhang- Alex, Ninad, Lena

#5 with Professor Jim Biles- Nicole, Panagiota, Mariel 

#7 with Professor Ben Leer- Laila, Khadijah, Annie, Michael

#4 or #6 with Professor Kyle McDonald- Reem, Kossivi

Fall Workshop Schedule (subject to updating to reflect Fall academic calendar)

Workshops are held on Zoom every Friday from 5PM-6:30PM and are mandatory as with a regular class. These workshops are in addition to team meetings.

  • Weekly, Fridays 5PM-6:30PM (likely ending by 6:15PM)
  • All workshop meetings will be online. Mid Year Presentations will be in person.
  • Friday, September 8th (students and faculty)
  • Individual introductions: each student/mentor please say your name/pronouns, academic background, capstone project, what you hope to get out of the project, what you see as a potential challenge to meeting your project goals.
  • A review of the syllabus and expectations for mentors as well as students
    • Minimum 25 pages in final paper per group member (not including appendices/ bibliographies)
    • Group members may receive different grades 
    • Must produce new deliverables that build on a literature review of existing research (examples of what is and what is not enough)
    • Review of drafted, optional grading rubric for mentors
    • Review of CUNY academic integrity policy
    • Mid Year: Presentation and early draft. 
    • Appendices and Project Management Logs
  • Save the Date: Tuesday December 12th for Mid Year Presentations (late afternoon/early evening). 

Finally each student will workshop a personal writing sample (no more than one page) from another class with another student selected at random. 

For next meeting students should read through all of the resources under “Readings.”

  • September 15th (No classes scheduled)

  • September 22nd
  • Project resources: DataCamp with Kyle, The Zahn Center for Innovation, Alex’s PM Tool
  • The benefits of diagramming your research project
  • Assignment #1: Diagram your project for next workshop as a group and be ready to discuss it (see site resources for various software you might want to use)
  • Description of Assignment #2: A group PML entry (due the following Wednesday) 
  • September 29th
  • Diagram discussions from each group and conversation 
  • Back to Basics! What makes a good paper? Background research/literature review and healthy citation management.
  • Description of Annotated Bibliographies 
  • Description of Assignment #3: 3 Annotated Unique Bibliography Entries from Each Group Member (due the following Wednesday)
  • October 6th
  • Discussion of annotations from each student in breakout groups as teams
  • Back to Basics! What makes a good presentation?
  • Description of Assignment #4: For next class, each student should prepare a 5 minute, scripted lightning talk (with slides) on one of the key resources for their background research/literature review. Students should be prepared to give feedback on presentations next class. 
  • October 13th
  • Lightning talks and feedback
  • October 20th
  • Lightning talks and feedback
  • Description of expectations for mid-year written report and for mid-year presentations
  • Students should bring a personal writing sample (no more than 1 page) next week to workshop to discuss in small groups of ~3. 
  • October 27th
  • Any remaining lightning talks and feedback
  • Final paper formatting discussion
  • Back to Basics! Research methods
  • Description of Assignment #5: For next class, each group should be prepared to discuss what research methods their project might use and why. Students should be prepared to give feedback. 
  • November 3rd
  • Research methods discussion from each team and IRB discussion
  • Description of Assignment #6: Mid-Year Presentation Drafts. Each group should prepare a maximum of a half hour talk on their work so far (each group member should speak) and we will have one or two talks per week. This is considered a longer “rough draft” of the mid year presentation.
  • Small group writing workshop.
  • November 10th
  • No workshop (office hours on Zoom earlier in the day)
  • November 17th
  • Final writing workshop: teams swap early section of papers
  • November 24th Break, no workshop
  • December 1st (faculty advisors welcome) 
  • Midyear draft presentations
  • December 8th (faculty advisors welcome) 
  • Midyear draft presentations

Tuesday December 12th: Mid-Year Presentations (5PM, the “Reading Day”).

20 minute maximum concise presentation from each group, 20 minutes of feedback and discussion.

Projects on Offer

1. Creating Living Biomaterials from Photosynthetic Microorganisms

Led by Professor Lane Gilchrist (Chemical Engineering)


After researching living biomaterials, propose a sustainable biomaterial design that can solve a bioremediation problem.


New biomaterials with an extraordinary combination of properties can be fashioned from living cells, including the ability to self-heal and adapt to changing environmental conditions. The metabolic functions of the living cells contained within the biomaterial structures can be used for heavy metal and toxic compound bioremediation with the cellular polymers forming load bearing structures that can be grown in place. In suitable designs they can self-assemble autonomously and grow into prepatterned structures, forming novel sustainable and economical biomaterials that harness cellular functions and structural elements.

Suggested Approach

(i) Initiation of the project by undertaking an extensive literature review of photosynthetic organisms and sustainable biomaterials.

(ii) Find a viable application for the engineered living material and compare with other abiotic systems currently applied.

(iii) Select different base microorganisms from different photosynthetic species based on biomaterial forming potential. Determine their growth characteristics and potential viability within renewable polymer matrices. Design an starting living biomaterial combination of organism and matrix and assess the performance characteristics in the desired application. Perform a comparative sustainability analysis of the living biomaterial, using life cycle assessment.

(iv) Time permitting, work with a bioengineering lab to collaborate on the implementation of the design.

2. Understanding and Predicting Dzud Events and Their Impacts in Middle and High Latitude Drylands

Led by Professor Kyle McDonald (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)

Students will characterize dzud event risk and severity, assessing relationships between remote sensing

datasets (e.g. soil moisture, vegetation stress, landscape freeze/thaw state), dzud events, and associated socioeconomic impacts. Based on this analysis, students will develop an assessment framework for use in risk mitigation strategies. The understanding gained supports integration of physical and social sciences into decision making for anticipatory action.

Drylands in the middle and high latitudes have harsh environments with characteristically cold and arid

climates. The livelihoods of the people inhabiting these areas are threatened by constant climate-related natural hazards. Dzud is the Mongolian term for a natural disaster resulting from harsh winter conditions that reduce availability or accessibility of pastures, leading to an extensive loss of livestock/wildlife from either starvation or cold during the winter-spring. These events occur in grasslands and tundra in significant portions of the mid to high latitudes, covering approximately 45% of Earth’s terrestrial area. In Central Asia, these events have significant humanitarian impacts because they affect local livestock populations, especially in Mongolia where approximately 30% of the workforce is dependent on herding for a substantial part of their livelihoods. In North America, these events are called winter kill, and they can result in massive die-offs of wildlife.

The current dzud early warning system in Mongolia has been in place since 2015 and is developed by the Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment (Mongolia) in collaboration with Nagoya University in Japan. However, fully characterizing summer and winter conditions associated with dzud risk has been a challenge, and false positives associated with prediction of dzud events are high.

This capstone study seeks to employ state-of-the-art remote sensing datasets collected from Earth orbit to develop risk and severity assessments for dzud events and associated socioeconomic impacts to inhabitants of dzud-prone regions. Initial emphasis will be on the dryland steppe of Mongolia where records of dzud events are available. Extension to other parts of the terrestrial high latitudes will include analysis of die-off events in North America.

Suggested Approaches:

  1. (i)  Investigate the relationship between dzud event occurrence, non-frozen season soil moisture (SM)conditions, vegetation water stress, and winter/autumn/spring freeze/thaw (FT) state conditions using remote sensing datasets, ground-based station data, and dzud occurrence data. NASA’s Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) mission provides SM and land surface FT state datasets beginning in 2015. NASA’s ECOSTRESS mission provides vegetation water stress and precision thermal data characterizing surface temperature for approximately the last three years. Explore the role of FT timing and past summer SM for different vegetation zones in Mongolia.
  2. (ii)  Produce remote sensing-informed dzud risk maps based on prior summer soil moisture, current freeze/thaw state conditions, and ancillary datasets through an analysis conducted in a GIS framework supporting multi-criteria decision analysis.
  3. (iii)  Extend results to the regions of the global middle and high latitudes.
  4. (iv)  Conduct risk and socioeconomic impact assessments.

Students should be comfortable working with computer analysis tools and a GIS analysis framework.

This project will be carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems group in the Division of Science at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.

Figure 1: Examples of the impact of a dzud event on livestock in Mongolia. These events can often claim millions of livestock a year, affecting people’s livelihoods in significant ways. (Photo Credits: Left: UNDP Mongolia / Flickr, Right: Gerry Shih, thestar.com)

3. Climate Justice and Urban Design in New York City: Lower East Side as a Case Study

Led by Professor Zihao Zhang (Landscape Architecture); Current team members are Ninad Kashyap and Alex Diaz


This proposed research aims to examine the intersection of climate justice and urban design/planning in the Lower East Side of New York City (NYC). The research will provide insights and recommendations for policymakers and practitioners working to achieve climate justice and social equity in densely populated diverse cities.


The effects of climate change are not evenly distributed, and vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities and people of color, are disproportionately affected by the consequences of a changing climate. The Lower East Side community, including several NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses, has witnessed the severe impacts of climate change, including flooding and storms. In response, cities like New York are implementing strategies, including green infrastructure, renewable energy, sustainable transportation, and ecological economic development. Are these strategies implemented equitably? Are the benefits of climate action distributed fairly among all members of society? 

The intersection of climate justice and urban design is critical to ensuring that vulnerable communities are not left behind in the transition to a more sustainable future. This requires an interdisciplinary approach that brings together experts from a range of fields, including urban planning, public health, social work, engineering, economics, and environmental science. This proposed project will adopt a climate justice framework to study urban planning and design efforts to mitigate climate impact in the Lower East Side of New York City, focusing on the NYCHA community, the East River Park flood wall project, and the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area. 


  1. Review literature on climate justice and summarize their key concerns and concepts to construct our an analytical framework to evaluate NYC urban design proposals;
  2. Use the framework to analyze published documents by city agencies and urban design firms through the lens of climate justice. 
  3. Conduct GIS spatial analysis focusing on the uneven impact of climate change to NYC neighborhoods;
  4. Consult with experts, activists, and designers and join public engagement meetings to observe and analyze how climate injustice manifests in the design and engagement processes. 
  5. Propose alternatives and improved modes of climate adaptation practices prioritizing the well-being and desires of frontline communities.

4. Reducing human health risk and exposure to wastewater spills in urban coastal environments

Led by Professor Kyle McDonald (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)

The capstone team will employ remote sensing datasets from Earth-orbiting satellites to improve the understanding of Tijuana River discharge on water quality and associated health impacts in San Diego County, California. This project integrates aspects of remote sensing technology, public health and environmental justice.


The San Diego County Board of Supervisors recently declared that “pollution from the Tijuana River Valley [is] a public health crisis,” having led to 295 and 160 days of beach closures in Border Field State Park and Imperial Beach, CA, in 2020. In a 2017 case study, it was estimated that nearly 4% of 864,000 swimmers at San Diego beaches were sickened by a south-swell driven plume event containing massive amounts of untreated wastewater (Feddersen, et al., 2021). San Diego County’s Department of Environmental Health and Quality (DEHQ) works to protect beachgoers while preventing unnecessary closures that could negatively affect their beach tourism economy. This project will explore ways in which remote sensing can be used to improve understanding of Tijuana River plumes and enhance this decision process of DEHQ to protectpublichealth. Further,thisprojectaddressobjectivesofdiversity,equityinclusionandaccessibility (DEIA). The coastal zone is considered a common-pool resource and access is becoming increasingly limited due to climate change (i.e., sea level rise, extreme weather), growing population densities, and other factors. This project will help improve access by helping reduce the number of beach closures and by protecting environmental and public health.

Suggested Approaches:

  1. Develop and validate Tijuana River plume product suite using optical (Landsat-8, Sentinel-2, Planet, DESIS); thermal (Landsat-8, ECOSTRESS), and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) datasets (Sentinel-1).
  2. Evaluate plume product relative to DEHQ Bay and Beach program decisions using previously collect in situ measurements of wastewater contaminants.
  3. Evaluate impacts on urban coast access and equity issues in a policy brief.

This project will be carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Earth Science section in the Division of Science at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.

Students should be comfortable working with computer analysis tools and a GIS analysis framework.

5. Retrofitting subdivisions for sustainability in an international context: An example from Latin America

Led by Professor James Biles (International Studies/Geography)

Understand challenges to urban sustainability in an international context; Identify potential strategies to promote sustainability in low and moderate-income housing developments in the Global South; Assess sustainability of a large subdivision of social housing in the city of Mérida, Mexico; Co- create, with the participation of residents and other local actors, a strategy/ plan to remediate the challenges to sustainability in the project location.

Since the early 1990s, urbanization in Mexico has been driven largely by the construction of mass- produced social housing for working poor and middle-income families. This policy agenda prioritizes development of large subdivisions of small tract houses on tiny lots, frequently on the outskirts of cities. Recent scholarly and societal debate has identified numerous shortcomings of this strategy, including urban sprawl, spatial mismatch between housing and centers of employment, and large numbers of vacant and abandoned properties. Notwithstanding these limitations, for a significantshare of Mexico’s urban population subsidized social housing is the only viable means of achieving home ownership. However, in pursuit of the efficient and profitable provision of social housing, the federal government and private-sector home builders have prioritized the construction of massive quantities of housing units at the expense of creating sustainable communities.

As part of this capstone project, I would like to work with students in the M.S. Program in Sustainability, as well as residents of the subdivision (fraccionamiento) of Jardines del Norte and other stakeholders in Mérida, a large city in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This project builds on my ongoing praxis-oriented research in Mexico, which highlights the fundamental challenges of sustainability that confront cities attempting to provide “decent housing” for all. The objective is to promote sustainable community development within the large subdivisions of mass-produced tract housing that are now prevalent in Mexico’s largest urban areas. This project does not require Spanish language skills; however, capstone students should have an interest in working on an applied research project in the Global South. Potential participants will have an opportunity to apply both their theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

Suggested Approaches
(1) Review scholarly, policy and applied resources on urban sustainability, especially in the Global South (with particular emphasis on Latin America and Mexico).
(2) Gather and assess background information on social, economic and environmental conditions of the study location. Evaluate characteristics of the built environment of the subdivision.
(3) Review critical appraisal and recommendations of residents and other local stakeholders.
(4) Using combination of background information and primary data, identify most significant challenges to sustainability in study location.
(5) Using background information and feedback from local residents, identify realistic strategies to promote sustainability within the subdivision.
(6) Create a formal strategy/plan with explicit proposals to promote sustainable community development in the study location.

6. Wildfire Impacts on Coastal Water Quality Collaborative

Led by Professor Kyle McDonald (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)


The capstone team will assess impacts of the increasing prevalence of wildfire on coastal water quality and examine the intersection of associated wildfire impacts and stakeholder needs in California. This effort supports integration of remote seeing technologies, coast process science and social sciences related to climate change.


Wildfires in the western United States are expected to increase in frequency and intensity under a changing climate. There is an urgent need to quantify and anticipate wildfire impacts on aquatic ecosystems through changing watershed hydrology and nutrient transport, with coastal ecosystem response being particularly not well understood. This limited understanding of post-fire impacts on coastal water quality and infrastructure have resulted in challenges in local agency response and management. This project will help identify and explore post-fire monitoring protocols through the lens of space and airborne remote sensing, with the goal of improving understanding of watershed scale changes due to fire impacts after an event as well as supporting coordination efforts for monitoring post fire conditions and hazards.

Suggested Approaches:

  1. Develop and document understanding of stakeholder monitoring needs for post wildfire conditions and coastal impacts, in terms of datasets and technical capabilities.
  2. Review remote sensing assets that can complement and resolve coastal processes impacted by fires and develop exemplar case studies to show case capabilities.
  3. Report on opportunities at the intersection of remote sensing and post wildfire coastal monitoring and assessments in California.

Students should be comfortable working with computer analysis tools and a GIS analysis framework.

This project will be carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Earth Science section in the Division of Science at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.

7. Energy Use and Carbon Emissions in the United States Residential Building Sector

Led by Professor Ben Leer (Architecture) 

Objective: To calculate and compare the overall energy use of several realized residential building projects across the United States. 

Background: The building sector accounts for almost 40% of the total energy consumed in the US (2021 EIA).  Of this total about 21% is consumed by the residential sector. This total reflects the “operational energy” use of the buildings, and it does not account for the energy used to construct the building nor the amount of “embodied energy” used to extract, produce, and deliver building materials to site. For reference, the production of cement alone accounts for 8% of the total global CO2 emissions (IEA 2020). The combination of operational and embodied energy in the residential building sector makes it one of the largest contributors to global CO2 emissions. 

In the hopes of combating this trend, many designers and builders are trying implement better building practices to reduce both operational and embodied carbon emissions. One of the most successful building practices to reduce energy use is the Passive House Standard. The Passive House Standard is an international building certification that relies on building science and state of the art energy modeling to reduce a building’s energy consumption by up to 75%. 

This project aims to study several real-word Passive House projects across the United States. The team will analyze buildings across different climate zones comparing the energy use of each building against the current energy code. They will then study the embodied carbon associated with the materials used in construction, comparing different material choices. The final results will be a review of overall energy use for the different scenarios, both in material choice and performance targets.

Suggested Approach: 

  1. Research energy use and emissions in the building sector. Including latest trends in energy modeling and embodied carbon calculations.
  2. Review the current residential building energy code as it compares to the Passive House Standard.
  3. Identify key projects from across different climate zones in the US.
  4. Use the Passive House Energy modeling software to calculate the operational energy use of each building. 
  5. Model each building in reference to the residential energy code and compare it to the energy use of the PH standard. 
  6. Calculate the embodied energy associated with modeled building system
  7. Compare different building materials and their effect on carbon emissions
  8. Present the findings of each building, material type and energy use compared to code

8. Environmental Impacts of Electric Vehicles 

Led by Professor Robert Paaswell (Civil Engineering)

Objective: The current planning of this Administration is to phase out all motor vehicles operated with carbon-based fuel and replace with Electric Vehicles (EVs). To that end pending federal legislation proposes to blanket the US with charging stations; meanwhile vehicle manufacturers are designing vehicles that can be charged at home. Are the current plans beneficial, harmful or neutral to the environment?

Background: The growth of motor vehicle use (in VMT, trips/person, MV/HH, etc.) since 1916 have been well documented. Since 1921 the Federal Government has subsidized road growth and the importance of State DOTs. In 1956 this support took a huge boost with the introduction of the Interstate Highway Program and the permanence of the Highway Trust fund. One of the results of motorization of the US was a dramatic shift in populations. In 1916, the US was primarily rural, with a large per cent of the population living in urban areas. The “highway programs” and the rapid growth of HH Car Ownership has led to a dispersion of population. Today, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas; the majority of people living in urban areas live in suburban (lower density) areas. This has led to unremitting congestion, extensive travel times and declining air quality. Is anything gained by trading a carbon fuel powered vehicle for an electric vehicle?


  1. Define the problem to be studied and develop the study objectives
  2. Examine ways to meet the objectives
    1. Literature search
    2. Consultation and lectures by experts
    3. Review of methods of analysis
    4. Review of Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA)
    5. Apply chosen methodology of analysis
    6. Develop criteria for accepting conclusions
  3. Develop impact statements for conclusions:
    1. Impact on population distributions
    2. Impact on mode choice and use
    3. Impact on the environment
    4. Economic impacts
  4. Develop proposed next steps, based on conclusions

Note: The transportation and planning literature is filled with studies of the impact of the highway program, methods of analysis and the results of BCA and impact studies. This project is asking the study team to use what is given as a starting point and forecast the future impact of a “new” mode – EVs, their acceptance and use. The problem is real, critical and of great importance.

9. New Ideas for Sustainability Improvements, Messaging and Engagement on the City College of New York Campus

Led by Professor Stephanie Rose (Science Education)

To continue the research begun by the 2022-23 capstone team to complete a baseline audit of the City

College campus sustainability efforts; to participate in the City College Sustainability Council and help formulate a campus sustainability plan; to research, envision, and develop sustainability projects for the City College campus according to capstone students’ interests about City College’s proposed Sustainability Pillars for the following: (1) Waste and Recycling, (2) Water, (3) Transportation, (4) Sustainable Nutrition, (5) Procurement, (6) Sustainable Education and Outreach, (7) Energy, (8) Campus Green Spaces, (9) Local Community Engagement, (10) Messaging.

For critical sustainability goals to be met by countries worldwide, higher education institutions need to carefully examine their role as vehicles for social change. Colleges and universities around the world can leverage networks and collaborations to lead the way on sustainability efforts. The International Sustainable Campus Network (https://international-sustainable-campus-network.org/) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (https://www.aashe.org/) provide guidance, collaboration, and ranking systems to advance campus sustainability. Here at the City College of New York, efforts are underway to improve sustainability behaviors

(https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/facilities/sustainable-outreach-and-education) However, there is a great need for a City College campus sustainability plan and improved civic sustainability messaging on campus so that the City College community can be informed and participate in making more sustainable choices, work together to lower the college’s carbon footprint, and eventually the carbon footprint for the whole City University of New York (CUNY) system of over 300,000 people (CUNY Conserves). Involvement in this project has many future applications in efforts to create more sustainable workplaces globally.

Suggested Approaches

1) To research and document City College campus sustainability initiatives through interviews with City College students, faculty and staff including Facilities Director, David Robinson. To develop

sustainability pilot projects for the City College campus as exemplars for the CUNY system and to document the projects as case studies.

2) To research how other colleges in the CUNY system and nationwide develop and implement sustainability plans, and share sustainability information. To research how City College shares information about its own sustainability efforts through electronic screens and other signage,

social media, websites, and campus events. To envision the possibilities for improved civic sustainability messaging on the City College campus.