Empathy, Transformation, and Leadership: A Brief Reflection on AASHE 2012

Posted on October 16, 2012. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For the past 48 hours, I’ve been taking a deep and nourishing drink from the campus sustainability firehose at the AASHE 2012 conference.  Going all the way back to the very first AASHE conference in Tempe, Arizona in 2006, I’ve found these gatherings to be both educational and inspirational.  Other than that magical first gathering on the Arizona State University campus six years ago, this year’s conference in Los Angeles might very well have been the best one yet.  As I pour over my pages and pages of notes and reflect on the experience, I find that three themes emerge from the pages: empathy, transformation, and leadership.

First, empathy.  This was the theme that caught me by surprise.  The moving keynote performance by Dr. Robert Davies and the Fry Street Quartet humanized our collapsing environmental systems in a collage of images, music, and scientific data so effectively that many in the audience were in tears by the end.  I had to spend a few minutes gathering myself after the session, reminding myself that this is why I chose this profession, that this is why I – and so many others – continue to fight for a better future.  As Monty Hempel observed the next day, human empathy is the gateway to sustainability.  This led Dave Newport to ask a most important question: “How do we turn our human empathy back on?”  I’d like to think that if we can an answer to Dave’s question, we might actually transform the world.

Yes, transformation.  From the opening keynote to the closing awards ceremony, transformation was interwoven throughout the conference.  Hunter Lovins spoke of transformation of higher education with the emergence of online educational tools, a topic I covered recently when I suggested that online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative ever in higher education.  Unfortunately, aside from Hunter Lovins, there were to my knowledge no further serious discussions about online education and sustainability in any of the conference presentations.  If the same holds true next year, I will truly be shocked.

Numerous sessions explored transformations in how we design and construct buildings for university campuses, including experiences with net-zero energy buildings as well as those that meet the stringent guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC).  But even the LBC was itself challenged as not being sustainable, with restorative design identified as the next milestone on the horizon.  Steve Baumgartner of Buro Happold suggested that next year at AASHE, we need to discuss what the word living actually means when applied to a building, because the “living building” designation of the LBC is in itself misleading.  The state-of-the-art has progressed dramatically since the first AASHE conference in 2006, but whether the average new campus building has transformed all that much in the past six years is another question altogether.

That 2006 conference witnessed the announcement of the founding of Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, a truly transformational moment in sustainability education in higher ed.  Far too few schools have followed ASU’s lead, although the number of majors, minors, and certificate programs related to sustainability has blossomed.  Shirley Vincent of the National Council for Science and the Environment presented a detailed census of such programs, reporting that there are now 143 sustainability degrees, 298 sustainability specializations within degree programs (such as civil engineering or architecture), and 294 minors and certificates in sustainability.  The numbers look impressive – until you realize that there are about 3,400 two-year and four-year institutions of higher education (not including the for-profits).   In other words, there are only 0.2 sustainability major, minor, specialization, or certificate programs per college.  The transformation might very well come from online programs, because the pace of change at most schools to date – including my own – has been far too slow.

The final emergent theme from AASHE 2012 was leadership.  Mike Shriberg presented a compelling sustainability leadership program at the University of Michigan, with a limited and tightly-knit cohort of 25 students admitted per year traveling together through an 11 credit sequence to equip them to become leaders for a sustainable future.  But what does sustainability leadership mean?  A team from Portland State University led by Dr. Heather Burns posed this question in a workshop at the end of the conference, and the responses from the participants included the following:

  • “Sustainability leadership is a change of heart… beating in rhythm with the world” [there’s that empathy theme again!]
  • “It’s leadership embedded in natural systems, educating and communicating to bring others to that frame.”
  • “It’s setting the example.”
  • “It’s being humble and knowing when to ask the right question.”
  • “It’s being a catalyst, a change agent, a co-creator, a collaborator.”
  • “It’s the ability to reimagine the world, and to motivate others with that vision.”
  • “It’s an emergent quality, shared for a period of time, and then passed on to others.”
  • “It’s showing instead of telling.”
  • “It’s a burden!”

Empathy, transformation, leadership… these were the threads that tied together the AASHE 2012 experience for me.  As Robert Davies instructed, “It’s now time for us to believe what we know…  None of our efforts are enough just yet…  We must transform, or collapse.”  Sobering words.  If ever there was a time for empathetic and transformational leadership, now is the time.  But this is not a task to outsource to others; it’s one to take on ourselves.  As Gandhi observed, “We must be the change we wish to see.”

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Are We Missing the Obvious?

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

In the past year, we’ve witnessed some of the most dramatic changes ever in higher education.  A quick and incomplete list of the forces at work includes:

  • Declining federal and state budget support,
  • Soaring tuition costs and student debt burdens,
  • Game-changing technologies in the delivery of education,
  • Restructuring economies requiring lifelong learning for workers,
  • Increasingly global competition amongst universities, and
  • Aging facilities and faculties.

Indeed, as we see the business model for higher education being “blown to bits” – to borrow jargon from the dot-com days of the late 90s – many are even questioning whether college is “worth it” anymore.

For those of us in the campus sustainability movement, we’ve been working tirelessly to reduce carbon footprints, squeeze energy and water savings out of existing facilities, incorporate sustainable design features into new buildings, reduce waste streams, advocate for environmental curricula, and transform the university physical plant itself into a laboratory for learning about sustainability.  But in my view, we’ve been missing the obvious: the rise of online education could be the biggest sustainability initiative in all of higher education.

I see three reasons to support this claim.  First, consider the environmental impact of the treadmill of new construction.  According to a recent article in GreenSource Magazine, “It can take between 20 and 80 years for the impacts of a building’s operation to catch up with the impacts of its initial construction: For the first few decades of a building’s life most of its environmental footprint is from the materials used to make it.”[1]

That statistic stopped me in my tracks.  So according to GreenSource, the annual environmental impact of operating a building represents 1.25% to 5% of the environmental impact of constructing the building.  Ask yourself, where have you focused your attention as a campus sustainability professional?  Has it been primarily on how the building will (or does) operate, or on what the building is made of and how those materials were extracted, manufactured, and transported?  Chances are that you’ve spent most of your time on the former, and little on the latter, when in fact we should have done the opposite.  Don’t get me wrong, I warmly embrace those who pursue buildings that produce more energy than they consume.  But the hard truth is that in 2012, the greenest building is the building you don’t build (but please note that you won’t get a LEED certification for that decision).

As universities evolve to a “bricks and clicks” model – to borrow another phrase from the late 90s dot-com lexicon – they can potentially serve many more enrolled students without increasing their square footage.  As my boss, Dr. Barbara Bryson, suggested to me recently, suppose a small struggling college decided to change to a model with two alternating cohorts.  While one cohort would reside on campus for a set period of time, students in the other would use the burgeoning variety of online educational tools to advance their education.  And then after a certain amount of time – perhaps a few weeks – the two cohorts would switch, with the second cohort now residing on campus, and the first cohort using the online educational tools.  Back and forth they would alternate across the span of an academic year.  With that one bold change, that struggling college could double its enrollment without adding a single square foot of additional facilities to campus.  Remember that the greenest building is the one that you don’t build?

The second reason to support this claim about online education as a sustainability initiative is one of social sustainability.  Consider last year’s free online class on artificial intelligence at Stanford.  A whopping 160,000 students registered for the course, with 20,000 finishing.  These students weren’t your typical Stanford students, with high SAT scores, stellar high school resumes, and the financial means to attend one of the world’s top universities.  Rather, these were students of all ages with an internet connection and an interest to learn, period.  Interestingly, the 20,000 students who completed the course hailed from 190 different countries[2], and over 100 volunteers translated the course into 44 languages to make this possible.[3]

Definitions of social sustainability are tricky, but access to resources and access to opportunity are both at its conceptual heart.  When intellectual content from America’s top universities becomes available at no charge to a budding young entrepreneur in Indonesia, or an oppressed woman in Saudi Arabia, or a poor factory worker in China, the world becomes a more equitable place, and the prospect for the future of humanity has brightened.  Conversely, when we restrict access to education, when we raise financial, social, technical, or digital barriers, then the world has become a less equitable place, and the future has darkened.

The final reason why I believe that the rise of online education might very well be the greatest sustainability initiative in all of higher education brings me to the famed “IPAT” equation.  Briefly, “IPAT” is a conceptual equation that tells us that environmental impact (“I”) is a product of three factors: population (“P”), the average consumption of that population (“A”), and the resource intensity of the technology consumed or used (“T”).  If we assume that the global population will reach 9.5 billion by 2050 as many expect, and if we assume a 3% increase in global GDP per year through 2050, then just to maintain today’s level of environmental impact (which is already unsustainable) would require that our technology be 5 times more efficient in 2050 than it is today.  Scary, right?  But consider the following: one of the most effective and acceptable ways to reduce population growth is to educate women.  To quote The Economist, “Educated women are more likely to go out to work, more likely to demand contraception and less likely to want large families.”[4] What if we can reduce both the growth in population as well as the resource intensity of our affluence?  Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and similar tools from your or my university could very well be the conduit to provide women in developing countries with the education that they need that would lead them into the workplace and to a future with a smaller family.  Yes, massive open online courses can lead to massive environmental change.

I’ve been in higher education long enough to know that change at universities is often slow.  At times I’m amazed at how far the campus sustainability movement has come over the past decade given the inertia we sometimes see in higher ed.  Can this glacial pace of change continue?  Curiously, about a dozen years ago, I served as the teaching assistant for an experimental online e-commerce course at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, with students also enrolled from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley.  Twelve years later, despite world-class strength in the digital humanities, UVA’s online educational offerings lagged so far behind the likes of Stanford and MIT that it arguably contributed to the painful and surreal episode of the firing and rehiring of that great institution’s president this past summer.  The lesson here is that the traditional evolution of universities might not survive the revolution of educational technologies.

This will be a new kind of conversation for us, and I am willing to bet that many of us will receive puzzled looks from senior administrators if and when we attempt to join their deliberations about online education.  My head and my gut tell me that online education should be front and center on the campus sustainability professional’s radar screen.  However, my eyes and ears tell me that aside from the occasional certificate program, we as a professional community are missing potentially the biggest initiative we could ever undertake.


[1] Malin, Nadav.  “A Material Issue,” GreenSource, September 1, 2012, http://greensource.construction.com/news/2012/09/120901-a-material-issue.asp accessed September 22, 2012.

[2] Rodriguez, C. Osvaldo, “MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses,” The European Journal for Open, Distance and E-Learning, http://www.eurodl.org/?article=516, accessed September 23, 2012.

[3] Leckart, Steven, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever,” Wired, March 20, 2012, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_aiclass/all/, accessed September 23, 2012.

[4] “Go Forth and Multiply a Lot Less,” The Economist, October 29, 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14743589, accessed September 23, 2012.

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Drop the Tray! (Trayless Dining: A Green Strategy for Lean Times)

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

In this turbulent economy, I don’t think I can name a single college or university that is not cutting costs. These next few years will be lean(er) times in higher education. However, one lesson that is clearly emerging is that campus sustainability efforts are not being treated as a luxury. In fact, many campus greening initiatives are really gaining momentum precisely because they can help improve a university’s bottom line.

One such initiative is trayless dining. I co-teach a course each fall where students use the campus as a laboratory for learning about sustainability, and as part of the class requirements they work on group projects to improve the environmental performance of the university. When a group of my students decided that they wanted to implement a trayless dining pilot project last September, we initially viewed the initiative as primarily an environmental measure. We would soon discover that dropping the tray opened the door to a much broader web of benefits.

The problem is straight-forward. In dining halls that feature all-you-can-eat meals, people tend to put more food on their trays than they actually eat. And why not? When taking an additional food item carries no extra cost to the student, the incentive is to over-consume. The result is that a noticeable quantity of food ends up in the trash, and it’s this visible display of waste bound for a landfill that will stir-up environmentally-minded students.

In 2005, a group of my students worked on an educational campaign to reduce food waste in a campus dining hall. Using a test and control site, they found that those students at the test site who were targeted with a campaign of waste reduction messages in fact reduced their plate waste by 30%, while the students at the control site showed no change. In their final report, the student group thoroughly detailed the upstream environmental impacts avoided by not wasting food, as well as the downstream landfill issues. Curiously, over the course of the entire semester, we all missed an obvious accomplice to these wasteful activities, and it could not have been more visible: the tray.

My students last fall hypothesized that by removing trays from a dining hall, students would be more careful about their food selections. This would decrease food consumption and waste, as well as the energy and water used to clean the trays and extra plates. However, while they felt they could prove their hypothesis, they feared student backlash and staff opposition. An educational campaign was one thing, taking away trays and changing the operations of a dining hall was quite another.

Fortunately, over the years the class has become a bit of a safe haven for experiments. With the promise of faculty oversight of student work, several administrators have become comfortable with letting students in the class test new ideas. And indeed, our Housing and Dining (H&D) personnel were quite supportive of a pilot trayless dining project. However, they worried about student opinion. To address this, the students on the project team met with the elected leaders of two residential college (dormitory) governments and proposed four lunchtime trayless dining pilots in their shared dining facility spanning a four week period that would be called “Wasteless Wednesdays.” The college governments agreed, and the project was a go.

The first test date brought a mixed reaction. With the student project team on-hand to gauge opinion, they found that almost half of the impacted students were wildly supportive of the trayless dining concept, another 40% were vehemently opposed to it, and the final 10% were completely apathetic. Those of you who work on a university campus will instantly recognize the tendency for students to react strongly or not at all.

Back in the kitchen, the H&D staff reported that plate waste had dropped 30% (the same amount as had been achieved by the educational campaign in 2005), and that the use of water, energy, and cleaning chemicals to wash plates and trays had dropped by almost 10%. They were intrigued. On a typical day in this particular dining hall, they would spend about $1000 per lunch period on food costs, not including the labor for preparation or associated utilities. What if they could reduce the amount of food that they needed to prepare? And not just for lunch, but for dinner and breakfast too (which together cost about another $1,000 per day just for the food)?

The following Wasteless Wednesdays yielded similar results. Student opposition began to wane as the project team continued to listen to the concerns of their fellow students and to work with the staff to take steps to address them, such as moving a supply of flatware out into the dining area so that students didn’t have to balance it on their plates or make a separate trip just to get a fork and knife.

Following the successful pilot project, Housing and Dining staff approached the Rice Student Association (the “SA” is our campus student government) to begin a dialog about implementing trayless dining at all Rice dining halls for all meals. The SA adopted a resolution in February supporting the measure, which was endorsed by our student newspaper, and in March the trays were removed from all dining halls. To date, I am aware of only one complaint resulting from trayless dining at Rice.

Several lessons are clear from our early efforts with trayless dining at Rice:

  • Experimentation! The ability to conduct a pilot project in a safe setting – through a class project – provided a level of comfort for both staff and students to engage in an experiment.
  • Communication! Students in the dining hall appreciated that their concerns were heard – and in some cases addressed – during the pilot project, and further our student government reacted favorably to being engaged in discussions about supporting trayless dining rather than simply being notified that it would happen.
  • Location! In any trayless dining effort, we have come to discover that the geography of the kitchen and dining hall are very important. The placement of flatware and drink dispensers for example can make trayless dining relatively easy or quite challenging.
  • Education! As David Orr wrote in his famed essay “What is Education For?”, faculty and students should work together to study the wells, farms, feedlots, mines, and forests that supply the campus, as well as the places where the wastes are discharged or dumped, and then should participate in the creation of real solutions to these real problems. Trayless dining is one such example. This was an opportunity to create a teaching moment while also fostering student leadership skills.

We have come to discover that removing the tray is akin to removing a keystone, unleashing a variety of benefits. In addition to those already discussed, there are additional energy and labor savings related to reducing the quantity of food to be cooked. Arguably, trayless dining also improves the health of students by discouraging over-eating. I continue to hear from students that they pay more attention to the food that they consume now that the trays are gone.

As universities continue to look for savings opportunities, our experience at Rice echoes what others have also discovered. That is, if you want to save money and improve the environmental performance of your campus dining hall, perhaps the biggest and easiest step to take is to drop the tray.

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“Wow, What is this Place?”

Posted on February 6, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , |

One of the joys of working as a campus sustainability professional is the opportunity to spend time in the classroom, either as an instructor or as a guest lecturer. For my first guest lecture appearance at Rice, I provided a sustainability walking tour of our campus to students in the sustainable design class in our school of architecture. I have since returned to give variations of that tour about eight or nine times, most recently last week. One of the stops I like to make is in our civil engineering building (Ryon Laboratory), where we have an excellent example of a water-efficient restroom. As a tour stop, waterless urinals are always good for conversation.

The center of Ryon is a large open space filled with gigantic pieces of equipment for breaking things like steel bars and concrete beams. While there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it, there’s an inherent curiosity and coolness to the space that attracts one’s attention. As we walked past this central area towards the restroom, I couldn’t help but overhear a number of the students commenting to each other, “Wow, what is this place?”

What just happened? That one comment told me everything I needed to know about the level of interaction between architecture and engineering students on our campus. The architects had never been inside the civil engineers’ building, and I’m guessing the opposite held true as well. That’s two different buildings and two separate worlds for two professions that absolutely must become more familiar with one another if we are to create a more sustainable future.

One of the most challenging jobs for campus sustainability professionals is to thread the different worlds of the university together. I’m presently co-chairing a conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” where we’re trying to do exactly that by bringing together architects, urban planners, elected officials, civil engineers, environmental engineers, corporate executives, sociologists, community leaders, energy policy experts, faith community leaders, and many other disciplines and professions to address how an urban future can provide answers to our ecological, social, and economic challenges.

My role in part has been to see beyond the departmental and topical boundaries and to build connections. When planning the conference, there were pressures to compartmentalize the program, and to package the speakers into different tracks for different disciplines. And if left unchecked, there is a general tendency for each interest to just focus on their own preferred speakers, rather than to see a broader context. But the discussion of sustainability doesn’t fit into anyone’s box, and neither do discussions about cities. These topics demand to be handled in an interdisciplinary manner. And so we decided that all attendees regardless of background would hear the same speakers, and like it or not would be fully immersed in a number of topical worlds that might not be altogether familiar to them.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I would like to briefly describe the flow of the program (you can view the speaker bios here), and to invite any reader of this blog to register for this exciting and affordable event, which will be held on the Rice campus from March 2-4.

The first morning of the conference features a panel of mayors, representing Houston, Texas; Bogota, Colombia; Karachi, Pakistan; and Rehovot, Israel. For the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, so this conference envisions the city as holding the solution to our challenges for building a more sustainable and humane world (if done correctly, of course). The mayors will collectively illustrate progress and problems in their own cities in achieving this outcome. Following the panel is a discussion about the natural limits on our expansion by the originator of the ecological footprint William Rees, paired with a historical view of the human tendency to sprawl, by Robert Bruegmann. In the afternoon, we’ll address our future water and energy supplies with Perry McCarty and Amy Myers Jaffe, respectively. Next, we’ll turn our attention to globalization with Saskia Sassen, followed by discussions of demographics and the middle class with Elijah Anderson and Joel Kotkin. Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. will close the evening by providing a striking story of sustainability and innovation in the corporate world.

Day two begins with strategies of hope from Cameron Sinclair, whose work in promoting design solutions to humanitarian crises has brought him to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in recent years. Alejandro Guitierrez and David Crossley will present design frameworks for sustainable cities, followed by a discussion of movement and access by Catherine Ross and Antanas Mockus. In the afternoon, Larry Beasley, Peter Calthorpe, and Lars Lerup will address the topic of people, power, and planning. Fred Kent will share snapshots and lessons of successful urban spaces, and Ken Yeang will discuss designing eco-cities and eco-skyscrapers. The evening comes to a close with Majora Carter, whose work as the founder of Sustainable South Bronx led to her being recognized as a MacArthur Fellow.

The final morning of the conference delves into the present and future of the city’s infrastructure with Thomas D. O’Rourke and William J. Mitchell. Alexander Zehnder will offer thoughts on the future of water management, and finally Wayne Gordon and Pastor Harvey Clemons, Jr. will share their experiences on the role of communities of faith in building cities of hope.

But what happens on March 5th, the day after the conference, when all of the attendees have gone home? Will our faculty and staff co-chairs and planning committee retreat to their separate worlds? Are the connections that we’ve been making ephemeral, or are they real? This will be the real test. In some respects, universities are highly conservative places, penalizing those who reach outside their departments or who take unconventional approaches to their scholarly pursuits (witness the struggles of the digital humanities community, for example). Further, the pace of change in the curriculum can be glacial.

However, at this moment in time, my gut tells me that this conference is an important and necessary step in spanning the often wide chasms between the disciplines on my own campus on issues of sustainability and the city. And if I’m lucky, perhaps within just a few years, when I lead students in the sustainable design class on a sustainability walking tour of campus, when we walk into the civil engineering building, I won’t have to hear “Wow, what is this place?” but rather “Hey, I love coming to this place!” Wouldn’t that be more appropriate in a building for a discipline known for bridge-building?

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Field Notes from a Common Reading: Reflections on a Themed Academic Year

Posted on June 15, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

In the early summer of 2007, a golden opportunity fell into my lap. Unbeknownst to me, Rice University’s Dean of Undergraduates Office was in the midst of launching a common reading program, whereby all entering students in the first year class would receive a common book during the summer as a means of creating a shared intellectual experience once they arrived on campus. The selection committee had considered many titles, topics, and genres, but they felt the time was right to choose a book about global warming. Some eight hundred copies of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change would be appearing in mailboxes of incoming Rice students around the world, and the Assistant Dean of Undergraduates was calling me to see if I was interested in brainstorming ideas for activities related to the reading.

Within five minutes I was sitting in his office, trying to contain my excitement. In our meeting, we decided to create a year-long themed dialogue based on the common reading, branding 2007-2008 the year of “Humans, Nature, and Climate Change at Rice University.”

Some of the activities that supported the year of Humans, Nature, and Climate Change included the following:

  • Student-led discussions about the common reading selection during orientation week, accompanied by a lecture by Professor Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation and Science Advisor to the Clinton White House.
  • An environmental film series.
  • Signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
  • A lecture on Rice’s campus greening initiatives.
  • Distribution of about 100 free or subsidized tickets to attend a lecture by James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a premier scientist on climate change, who was speaking at Houston’s Wortham Center.
  • A month-long dorm energy competition that resulted in a savings of $15,000 – $20,000 in energy, and avoided production of about 85 metric tons of CO2.
  • A series of lectures by William Calvin, a theoretical neurobiologist and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, entitled “How to Treat Global Fever: An Intelligence Test for Our Times.”
  • A luncheon with an environmental activist working with the Sierra Club and Green Corps on a campaign to block the construction of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
  • A CO2 Forum and Sustainability Fair, in connection with the nationwide Focus the Nation event. Featured speakers included Rice President David Leebron, Houston Mayor Bill White, Nobel Laureate and IPCC Scientist Dominique Raynaud, Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, and Professor Neal Lane. Prior to the Forum, the Sustainability Fair featured approximately 25 student groups, campus departments, and outside organizations hosting booths related to their activities.
  • A series of lectures on carbon sequestration through soil biochar amendment by Dr. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of soil fertility management and soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University.
  • A visit from the BioTour, a traveling environmental educational program transported in a vegetable-oil powered school bus.
  • A research presentation entitled “Fever Pitch of Chilly Climate? Assessing Rice Student Attitudes toward Environmentalism”

So we were wildly successful, right? Well, for our first attempt at creating such an experience, I believe we did well, but there are many lessons to share.

Looking back on the academic year, I’ve come to realize that choosing and programming a themed learning experience is not terribly unlike creating a thematic mix-tape (or iTunes playlist, for those of you not raised in the era of the cassette tape). On a thematic mix tape, if the theme is too narrow or if the songs sound too alike, then most people are just not going to enjoy it. Who wants to hear 60 minutes of songs about cornbread played on a kazoo and released by the RCA-Victor label between 1928-1935 when a better option is songs about food from a variety of eras and musical genres? Inclusiveness and diversity matter.

A key lesson from our experience was that we were too narrow in how we treated our theme. No matter how credentialed or impressive or articulate the expert, there are only so many times and in so many different ways that the ordinary college student is going to want to be told that their future is in jeopardy because of global climate change. Yes, a subgroup of the student population who are either on academic tracks related to global warming or who are interested in environmental topics in general no doubt found the year to be an amazing journey – as did I – but we arguably failed to truly engage the interest of the average student over the entire year because we over-relied on a narrow offering of lectures that mostly focused on the science of climate change. In the language of the mix tape, we essentially played the same song over and over again.

A second important lesson was uncovered in a study of Rice student attitudes toward environmentalism, led by Sociology professor Elizabeth Long, Sociology postdoc Kristen Schilt, and student Andrea Dinneen. Through a series of focus group interviews, the researchers discovered a clear desire by our students to respond to environmental issues through project-oriented learning. Our more active events – the dorm energy competition and the sustainability fair – were definite success stories, and perhaps this was because they appealed to students’ desires to be actively engaged in environmental solutions rather than to just sit passively and listen to the problems. I was delighted by this finding in part because I am a firm believer in the value of project-based learning, as I teach two courses that connect campus sustainability efforts with the curriculum through group projects.

A third lesson flows from the second. Through the focus groups, our students expressed a preference for content about climate change solutions in the lectures. There was only so much bad news that they could take. We did include several well-received events that focused on solutions, but they came late enough in the year that those looking for solutions had perhaps turned-off to our offerings by that point. We had lost the listener. I must admit a certain level of frustration with this finding in that one could interpret it as students wanting to be told that everything is going to be okay. In my view, the only way we make everything okay is through focused hard work to create lasting change. On the other hand, there are several emerging signs of hope, and I completely agree that providing a more thorough immersion in some of these topics would have improved our overall program.

Finally, I would recommend that those considering themed academic years make their topic selection early enough to allow campus centers, institutes, and faculty the time that they need to create tie-ins with their own events and courses. Because we were already in the midst of planning for our Focus the Nation event, we did have some tie-in to classes offered during the spring semester. However, by choosing our theme just a few months before the start of the fall semester, we narrowed our field of tie-in opportunities.

While I’ve not yet compared lessons learned with our Assistant Dean of Undergraduates, it does appear that we’ve arrived at some similar conclusions. The common reading for the 2008-2009 academic year is an amazing book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin called Three Cups of Tea that chronicles the efforts of Mr. Mortenson to establish schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a tale of hope and hard work, demonstrating the kinds of outcomes that a single person can achieve to overcome poverty and deep cultural divides in this post 9/11 world. The accompanying theme is likely to be global citizenship, a topic broad enough to attract widespread student interest if properly programmed.

Inclusiveness of content. Opportunities for action. Inspiring stories with real solutions. Advanced planning. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a truly successful themed academic year. I’ll report back in a year on this topic to see whether I’m right. My sense is that with this new theme of global citizenship, we’ll have a hit.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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