Tube City Almanac

August 06, 2008

Research Grows from Penn State's 'Ag' Office

Category: News || By

A new research program is about to raise Penn State University's profile in Western Pennsylvania and will likely pay dividends for students at the campus in McKeesport.

"One of the big areas we're working in right now is alternative energy --- particularly biofuels," says Deno De Ciantis, who's tentatively being billed as "director of the Greater Pittsburgh Metro Initiative." (One of the many things yet to be determined, De Ciantis says wryly, is his title.)

Currently being housed at Allegheny County's agricultural extension office, the proposed Pittsburgh research center is a joint effort of Penn State's Cooperative Extension, College of Agricultural Sciences, and Office of University Outreach.

Eventually, it will also include Penn State's colleges of Engineering and Arts and Architecture.

The direct impact on McKeesport and vicinity is hard to estimate. Unfortunately, the research center will probably not be located at the Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport; De Ciantis says Penn State is looking for office space closer to Downtown Pittsburgh.

But there will be opportunities for students at the Greater Allegheny Campus and Penn State's other campuses to get involved in research throughout the region, he says.

"There are tremendous opportunities around for students who want real-world experience, but sometimes it's difficult for them to get into the metro (Pittsburgh) area if they don't know who to approach," says De Ciantis, a Pittsburgh native who has worked for Penn State for 15 years and previously served as county extension director.

The university's intent is to better match needs in local communities with research being done at the University Park campus and the "regional" (Penn State calls them "Commonwealth") campuses.

Although Penn State has $140 million in assets in Allegheny County, De Ciantis says, people tend to think of the university as "that entity way out there" in State College.

(Even the mention of the "county extension office" is likely to mystify city dwellers, but as De Ciantis points out, the extension office's programs go far beyond answering agricultural questions. Through the Allegheny County extension office, residents have access to training in child care, economic development, and environmental health and safety.)

"We're trying to figure out how to better position ourselves," he says.

Besides the obvious, ongoing relationship between the Mon-Yough area and the Greater Allegheny Campus, which currently serves about 800 students, Penn State is already partnering with nearby community organizations.

Two years ago, Penn State helped Allegheny East MH/MR Center Inc. (now called Milestone) develop a hydroponic greenhouse in Elizabeth Township, near the Yough River bike trail.

The 3,840-square-foot greenhouse at "Yough River Trail Gardens" provides job training and vocational therapy for adults with mental health issues or disabilities. It's also growing produce year-round that's sold through two major food distributors.

And just yesterday, Penn State helped launch a new electricity co-generation plant. Exhaust from the propane heater used to keep the greenhouse warm will now generate electricity as well; any surplus electricity will be sold back to the power grid.

The 4.7-kW co-generation plant was funded through a $29,000 grant from the state's Energy Harvest program.

Other research projects are trying to identify uses for brownfields and vacant urban commercial and residential lots. In September, De Ciantis says, a group of students in Penn State's renowned landscape architecture program will begin a semester-long project with Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority to develop low-cost, sustainable ways to improve blighted neighborhoods in the city.

There are also efforts underway to examine the role that urban farming might play in Allegheny County --- converting vacant city land to produce food, and employing local residents.

"We're trying to identify needs and find resources with Penn State that can help address those challenges," De Ciantis says. "There's a whole bunch of stuff happening."

Your Comments are Welcome!

Near the Yough bike trail? Near, he says, with a straight face?

For the record, access to the greenhouse is virtually impossible without a bike. Of course, one wouldn’t know that unless one would actually get up on two weeks and pedal over to see for oneself – God forbid that would happen.

Say, I’m looking for a nice place to eat in Our Fair City once the link with Picksberg is finished sometime in the fall. Any suggestions?

An afternoon trip from Picksberg to Our Fair City sounds like a delightful ride, if one few people in Our Fair City have stopped to think about seriously. Hmmm, I wonder what the potential impact on small businesses in OFC such travelers could make in the years to come. Nah, let’s turn our thoughts to a continuous caster for the valley instead. Them’s real jobs!

Keep ‘em flying, Pilgrim boy!
Prof. Windbag - August 06, 2008

Penn State has a campus in McKeesport? I didn’t know that! Oh, wait a minute, I went there in the 1970s so I know McKeesport HAD a Penn State campus. Then again, why would Penn State do ANYTHING that would acknowledge a presence in McKeesport, where they’d rather acknowledge those safe places like Altoona and New Kensington. For the record, PSNK is farther from downtown New Ken than CCAC South Campus is (these days) from downtown McKeesport. Sign this a not-too-proud alumnus who now lives in suburban (note this, PS-GAG) MCKEESPORT, rejoices in a nephew and niece at Westminster, a niece with a master’s degree from CMU and a nephew with a Slippery Rock degree who is doing fairly well in Chicago these days.
Does it matter? - August 07, 2008

I can see both of you had your sarcasm flakes this morning.

Remember, kids, they’re an important part of a smart-aleck’s breakfast!
Webmaster - August 07, 2008

I’m plowed to be an old man!
Prof Windbag - August 07, 2008

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