Faces of Engaged Scholarship: Professor Joe Ryan, Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering

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By Gretchen Minekime


Joe Ryan started doing community-engaged scholarship in 1999 and hasn’t looked back. 

“I had moved up near Jamestown and realized I was driving past old mine sites. I connected with a community group concerned about off-road vehicle use along James Creek and the effects on the water supply. The treatment plant was overwhelmed by sediment from the offroaders. The work we did helped to demonstrate that the vehicles were indeed causing a problem, and the county decided to close the road. After that, we started assessing the effects the old mines were having on the water quality.”

Ryan takes seriously CU Boulder’s responsibility to be a statewide resource and how community-based work enhances every aspect of his job from teaching to advancing research to securing new research funding. 


On what motivates Ryan to prioritize community-engaged scholarship: 

It’s a chance to share my expertise in immediate ways, and I can get students involved in hands-on projects so that they can feel how motivating it is to solve problems. Another really nice by-product of community-based work is that it’s a chance to start research that can lead to deeper work and bigger funding. 

My biggest return on investment was when the Office for Outreach and Engagement provided some seed funding for me and Professor Mark Williams in Geography to create the Colorado Water Energy Research Center (CWERC), which worked statewide with community groups dealing with oil and gas development. We were able to develop the center and apply to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a Sustainability Research Network. We got that $12 million grant and built a network of 27 investigators who worked together for seven years on the environmental, economic, and political effects of oil and gas development in Colorado. 

On why it’s important for CU Boulder: 

Expertise and money aren’t equally available around Colorado. I’ve found there’s real appreciation when better resourced locales work around the state. 

For example, Mercury comes from burning coal and there are high concentrations of it, as high as anywhere in the USA, in the Four Corners area. My team worked with the Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton to take samples and bring in students from Fort Lewis College—some of whom were Native American—to learn about how to turn their education into a real project addressing community issues. 

More recently, masters student Holly Miller participated in an outreach project with a public health consortium that represents six Western Slope counties. Many residents in that department’s area have private wells that aren’t monitored or regulated. Holly checked the water quality and was then hired to develop a map and website for residents. This is a great example of how an outreach partnership became a deeper connection where residents couldn’t have accomplished the same thing on their own. The public health officials really appreciated Holly’s work. She even turned it into her Master’s thesis. 

On what he’d say to fellow faculty members: 

I suppose if I was speaking to a newer faculty member concerned about tenure, I’d tell them that the practical benefits of this work can be turned into a bigger proposal. The work generates ideas and builds awareness about what problems exist and what research is needed. And the tie is not only for research, but for teaching. 

Courses can be made more stimulating through service learning components–such as through CU Engage or projects funded by the Office for Outreach and Engagement. The teaching becomes more interesting this way, too. There’s pressure to achieve research goals, but community-engaged scholarship can make teaching something beyond adequate without that much more work.  

We mentor newer faculty so much about tenure, and it’s important to understand how outreach can connect to tenure. The Faculty Report of Professional Activities (FRPA)  has an outreach component. It’s recognized as a contribution that CU wants to know about, and I like that I can note my outreach work. 

On being the chair of the CU Boulder Outreach Awards Committee and a member of the new Community Perspectives Cohort:

I have aspirations to see proposals submitted from all over campus. The applications we get are fantastic, but a higher percentage of the faculty could be submitting. Some never have, and I’d love to see more. The Marshall Fire is a good example of how research could be applied.

Community Perspectives is just getting started, but I am already enjoying how intellectually diverse the group is and how much synergy is present around doing community-engaged work. I’m looking forward to how this and ideas will develop during our June tour of Southern Colorado. 


The CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement facilitates mutually beneficial partnerships between communities and scholars who seek to advance their work in community settings. Faces of Outreach highlights the stories of CU Boulder faculty, staff, students and public partners conducting the work and what they’re accomplishing together.  See more Faces of Engaged Scholarship stories and learn about what the Office for Outreach and Engagement offers.