Student interns tackle projects around South Bend, Elkhart

Author: Erin Blasko

Bowman Creek Feature

From an office in a converted former flooring factory southeast of downtown, a team of four student interns is developing stormwater management solutions for the city of South Bend. A graphical user interface will help business owners calculate the cost of “soft” stormwater infrastructure, from permeable pavement to rain gardens. A tutorial will instruct residents and business owners on how to collect and reuse stormwater with rain barrels.

Nearby, a second team is surveying a restored section of Bowman Creek. Stormwater flows into the creek, which flows into the St. Joseph River. Sensors will measure the flow and depth of the creek and communicate with existing sensors upstream, in the sewer system, to prevent flooding and sewer overflows, which foul the river.

Across town, a third team is working to convert as many as six vacant lots into a scattered site tree nursery. The nursery will host as many as 500 native trees, from poplar, red oak and hackberry to Kentucky coffee and buckeye. Once mature, the trees will be planted along medians and boulevards in the city, as well as in parks and on golf courses.

The city expects to save hundreds of dollars per tree compared with the cost of the same trees from a private grower.

Representing dozens of schools, including the University of Notre Dame, the interns are part of the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem (BCe2).

Operated by the Center for Civic Innovation at Notre Dame with support from area schools as well as local governments and business and nonprofit organizations, the BCe2 seeks innovative solutions to pressing civic issues in South Bend and Elkhart, from affordable housing and transportation to clean water.

Interns representing colleges and universities throughout Indiana, as well as local high schools, spend eight weeks — mid-June to early August — piloting projects aimed at addressing real-world problems in areas of South Bend and Elkhart that suffer from long-term poverty, blight and disinvestment.

This summer’s cohort of more than 50 interns is the largest yet, and just the second to pilot projects outside of the Bowman Creek watershed, where the BCe2 started as a simple creek restoration project back in 2014.

“We’re definitely growing,” said Sara Boukdad, internship program manager for the BCe2.

In South Bend, teams are working to monitor weather and stormwater, plant trees, collect oral histories and improve public safety as well as access to housing and health care.

In Elkhart, teams are working to improve Wi-Fi access, manage watersheds, develop eco-friendly playground equipment and surfaces and improve transportation options downtown.

BCe2 staff brainstorm projects with input from a variety of stakeholders, Boukdad said, from residents to city and community leaders. The work begins in the fall. To be considered, a project must benefit both the interns and the community. It also should be a priority for the city.

“It’s about being flexible and open to adaptability,” Boukdad said, “and understanding that we’re doing things with the community and not for them.”

Mark Bode, spokesman for the city of South Bend, said, “We’re excited to continue the Bowman Creek partnership with Notre Dame and community partners. By providing ways for students to apply their skills towards local challenges, BCe2 builds capacity and pilots services to improve neighborhoods.”

Work and play

Student interns from the Center for Civic Innovation and Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem, (names left-right) Annaliza Canda from Purdue University, Isaac Huston from Michigan State University and Tiffany Good from Indiana University SB stand in a native tree nursery that they helped plant and maintain on a former vacant lot in South Bend. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame.Student interns from the Center for Civic Innovation and Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem, (names left-right) Annaliza Canda from Purdue University, Isaac Huston from Michigan State University and Tiffany Good from Indiana University SB stand in a native tree nursery that they helped plant and maintain on a former vacant lot in South Bend.

Cristian Lagunas, a rising senior at Notre Dame from Athens, Alabama, is part of the team working on green stormwater solutions for commercial property owners in South Bend. 

“It’s been good,” Lagunas, who is studying mechanical engineering, said of the experience. “Our team has made a lot of progress.”

As part of an effort to prevent sewer overflows and reduce the cost of an ongoing sewer separation project, the city has mandated that all drains, gutters and downspouts be disconnected from the sewer system by 2021. Property owners who do not comply with the mandate must pay a monthly fee based on the size of the connected hard surface, such as a roof or parking lot.

In addition to developing a tool for property owners to calculate that fee as well as the comparable cost of eco-friendly alternatives, such as rain barrels or green roofs, the stormwater team is developing informational materials about the mandate for distribution to property owners.

“We realized we could make it easier for commercial building owners” to make decisions around the mandate, Lagunas said of the team’s work.

Classmate Finn Cavanaugh, a rising senior from Oak Park, Illinois, is part of the team working to survey and monitor Bowman Creek.

This is Cavanaugh’s second go-round with the BCe2. In 2017, he worked with a team tasked with exploring options for “daylighting” portions of Bowman Creek, which flows through underground culverts in many areas, exacerbating flooding.

“It’s shaped a lot of what I want to do,” Cavanaugh, who is studying civil engineering, said of the work. “I’m really interested in public sector work that involves the community and benefits the community, and in restoring ecosystems through engineering.”

In working to monitor the creek, the Bowman team is working closely with EmNet, a local technology company that monitors the combined storm/wastewater sewer system in South Bend.

EmNet was founded in 2004 with support from the city of South Bend as well as Notre Dame. The company currently provides sewer monitoring services for several major U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Buffalo, New York.

Speaking of the interns, Boukdad said, “They’re all driven by increasing their skill set and helping the population.”

But it’s not all work. 

When not wading into creeks, writing code or planting trees, the interns enjoy local events as well as food, culture and outdoor recreation, from fresh fruits and vegetables at the South Bend Farmers Market to South Bend Cubs games, gallery walks in downtown Elkhart and rides along the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail in Elkhart County.

Such experiences are new to many of the Notre Dame students and serve to deepen the connections between campus and community.

“We always talk about the ‘Notre Dame bubble,’” Cavanaugh said — a metaphor for the perceived social and cultural divide between the University and the broader community — “so it’s nice to get out here and learn more about” South Bend and the surrounding area.

Said Boukdad, a Notre Dame graduate herself and a native New Englander, “It’s an opportunity for (the students) to be a part of a community that has a lot of great qualities, but also a lot of challenges.”

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Originally published by Erin Blasko at on July 19, 2019.