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Insights - Sustainable sculpture

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Sustainable sculpture

Think sculpture is built to last? Think again. This summer, University of Maine students explored the use of natural — and, in many cases, biodegradable — materials in the first Sustainable Sculpture class.

Trash became treasure. Twigs became shrines. Salt and mineral blocks were carved into figures that would eventually dissolve.

"To actually have a conversation with our environment, that's a really liberating experience… allowing myself to let go of that work that is 'mine' as part of something bigger," says senior Samantha Jones.

In the four-week summer course, students worked with biodegradable materials such as handmade paper and scavenged wood, as well as castoffs from the campus recycling center.

"That is one of our objectives in the course, to get students to seriously consider the materials from the inception — Where do they come from? Are they mined/collected from renewable resources? What types of processes and resources are involved in getting them to your studio? — through the entire design process, which includes how the artist uses them and the real life span of the material," says Andy Mauery, a professor in UMaine's Department of Art.

The students took their charge seriously; for instance, questioning the impact a mineral block laced with copper might have on birds and small animals. In an online forum, they developed a vocabulary of sustainable art. When the class ended, the students formed a club to continue the conversation.

"A lot of students are thinking very deeply about the concepts," says sculptor and adjunct professor Susan Camp, who cotaught the class with Mauery.

Social Security investing

Contrary to popular belief, there is no Social Security trust fund. Instead, future obligations are funded by U.S. Treasury bonds, and that's not the best news for returns, according to recent research by a University of Maine professor of finance.

Robert Strong, the University of Maine Foundation Professor of Investment Education, found the earning potential of a portfolio invested completely in Treasury bonds isn't likely to keep up with inflation. But by allowing participants to invest a small percentage of the portfolio in the stock market, he says, such investments have a better chance of meeting or exceeding cost-of-living increases.

Rather than considering performance in a traditional risk/return framework, Strong's research centers on an investment program with an objective of simply earning at least the rate of inflation. Historical data suggest that a bonds-only portfolio wouldn't achieve that goal. However, the inclusion of a surprisingly small amount — as low as 5 percent — of stock investments would dramatically increase the chances of keeping up with cost-of-living increases without significantly increasing risk.

The results indicate that from a simple cost-of-living perspective, it makes sense to permit Social Security participants to put a small percentage of their contributions in the stock market, says Strong, whose findings were published in the Journal of Business & Economic Studies.

Taking the pulse of home care

Home care workers provide a critical service by helping Maine's elders stay in their homes when they need extra personal care, but the labor pool serving that expanding population is shrinking.

Sandy Butler, professor of social work and coordinator of the University of Maine Master's in Social Work program, has begun a three-year research project to find out why. With funding from an Academic Research Enhancement Award from the National Institute on Aging, she will oversee a survey of 250 home care workers in Maine to investigate factors influencing job turnover and retention, and how those factors differ between older and younger workers.

Personal support specialists and personal care attendants classified as direct care or home care workers provide in-home assistance for frail elders and individuals with disabilities. The work can include bathing, dressing, feeding, assistance with transportation and light housework. Butler notes that they usually work for very low wages, often without benefits and under difficult conditions.

The study explores two areas of interest to Butler, a nationally recognized gerontologist and eldercare researcher: the financial security of women throughout their lives, and the health and well-being of elders.

Experts on topic

In response to growing concern about food allergies in America's schools, a uniform, nationwide policy called the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act is now moving through Congress.

But sweeping legislation often doesn't address the legal and ethical issues schools face when trying to accommodate students with food allergies. Dianne Hoff, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine, has done extensive research in the legal and ethical dilemmas public schools face, including peanut allergies.

"Federal acts will say something like, 'All schools have to have a plan,'" Hoff says. "But that still doesn't answer the ethical or legal dilemmas: How far do we have to go? And whose rights trump whose rights?"

Maine's story bank

Maine: The way life should be. It's a catchy slogan that speaks to Maine's quality of place. But while the concept is easy to grasp, it's a bit hard to define.

The Story Bank Institute, a project of the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine and Cultural Resources Inc., of Rockport, hopes to uncover what sense of place means, from the Great North Woods to the southern coast. After a four-day intensive workshop this summer, participants went into their communities to collect stories of Maine: The way life is. Their subjects included bateau building on the St. John River, basketmaking materials collection on Indian Island, the culture of Bangor's Hispanic community and the coastal traditions of crab picking and clam digging.

Preliminary work was presented live at the American Folk Festival in Bangor in August. Audio, video and photographs from the project will reside in the Folklife Center archives. The project is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Maine Humanities Council.

By the numbers

University of Maine Museum of Art permanent collection

  • 6,989 pieces of art

  • 4,561 works on paper, including drawings, photos and prints

  • 1,926 paintings

  • 1,733 artists represented

  • 142 Maine artists represented

  • 46 exhibits in the Museums by Mail traveling art exhibit program

Term limit drawbacks

At the state level, term limits don't provide the significant boost to minority party representation that proponents expect, according to a recent study by University of Maine political scientist Richard Powell.

When states began imposing term limits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the populace was dissatisfied with elected officials at all levels of government. Many political scientists predicted the move would benefit Republicans — the traditional minority party — by eliminating Democrats' incumbency advantage.

Powell, an associate professor of political science at UMaine, studied the partisan makeup of state legislatures from 1990–2004. His findings, published in State Politics and Policy Quarterly, challenge those early predictions.

On paper, it seemed there were a number of reasons why term limits would benefit Republicans, but in practice, this didn't happen in states with term limits, possibly because of the types of states involved. Term limits passed more easily in predominantly Republican states because voters viewed the issue as a tool against congressional Democrats. However, term limits undercut majority Republican incumbents in their state legislatures.

Cyber caddie

Neither UMaine junior James Daniels nor Kurtis Petersons, a 2005 UMaine graduate, is a golfer, but that didn't hinder collaborative development on a prize-winning reality-based golf program.

The $10,000 cash prize and a $15,000 consulting services package they won in the annual statewide Business Plan Competition held by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Maine in April has enabled mCaddie to move to the next development level — national launch of a limited version of the program.

mCaddie allows golfers to track and replicate an actual game with a simultaneous virtual one that generates statistics. In addition, mCaddie offers an online social clubhouse and allows players to see which of their friends are playing golf at a given time and how they are doing.

The system begins on the green with a cell phone with GPS function. Players save their tee off location with a waypoint. As the game progresses, mCaddie logs strokes and ball travel distances. The game is saved to the mCaddie Web site, where it can be reviewed and analyzed, or viewed by other players.

"It's a caddie with tie-ins to golf courses," Daniels says. "We already have a number of golf courses that are quite eager to sign on."

Petersons came up with the idea for mCaddie and Daniels provided the technical expertise. Since January, the two have been refining mCaddie with help from UMaine's Foster Student Innovation Center and the Maine Center for Enterprise Development in Portland.

Mississippi mud

How much carbon Mississippi River mud contributes to the ocean and to the atmosphere is the focus of research by a University of Maine Ph.D. student in oceanography.

Margaret Estapa, a recent recipient of a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, is measuring the release of carbon from mud delivered by the Mississippi River and deposited along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

When exposed to intense sunlight, some of the carbon is released from the mud and flows out into the ocean, where it could be consumed in the ocean food web or released as carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas. Using light-measuring equipment and satellite data, Estapa is hoping to determine how much carbon is liberated by the sunlight, and how much remains buried in the mud.


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