I’m working on creating the next level of sustainability course for the university where I teach sustainability. Part of my plan is to integrate some community engaged learning or work-integrated learning opportunities. There are several reasons that I want to do this but among my leading reasons is a firm belief that learning that never leaves the classroom is a missed opportunity to support student learning and engage the broader community. As I develop my plan, I’ve been looking at some research about what has happened in other courses, programs, institutions, and communities. I thought I would share some of what I’m finding here, both as a way for me to synthesize it but also to highlight some of the innovative opportunities that exist in sustainability education. First up is Sroufe (2020) who created a design competition for MBA students for retrofitting and other proposals to make current university buildings more sustainable.
Sroufe’s article is of interest because, while we obviously need to build new buildings to be sustainable, a significant number of buildings that will exist already exist. Therefore, just as I’m constantly trying to make changes to my own home to make it more sustainable, we need to do the same thing to commercial and public buildings. To me, it makes a lot of sense to engage students in this process. The project based learning, problem solving, and community involvement can help to make the learning matter more. It isn’t about getting a grade, it’s about making a difference on your campus right now. Even more, it’s learning that can set students up to be leaders in the workplace.
The other thing that made Sroufe’s article catch my eye is my own elementary school memories of conducting an energy audit of the science centre in my city and presenting the results. I only really remember two thing. One, we counted all the lights and made recommendations on how to reduce energy and, over the long-term, operation costs. And two, we performed a rap written by my teacher that started with “You’re being robbed, energy is missing and we’re going to help you find it”. I’m not saying these are the most meaningful memories that have shaped my current career but I remember them from many years ago, imagine what I’d remember as a grad or undergrad student who had more ownership and more knowledge to give to the project?
In Sroufe’s course, students are given a fictitious request for proposals (RFP) to respond to. They have an unlimited budget but must provide real benefits related to ecological footprint of the building and stakeholder productivity. The students then complete tasks individually and as teams to develop their proposal. They engage in systems thinking to develop a more complete understanding of what the risks and opportunities are. They seek out, and have guest lectures from experts around the university and within the community. And then they present their proposals and create written reports.
Not surprisingly, one of the challenges is faculty time. This is where institutional support and engagement and interdisciplinary teams can help these projects to get off the ground and continue to run. Eager faculty can only do so much, something I need to keep in mind as I develop my own vision. Another challenge can be getting facilities on board. It needs to be clear that the purpose isn’t to criticize what is happening but to engage in learning and identify potential opportunities.
So how, you might ask does this relate to connecting to science? I hear from a lot of students and faculty who are frustrated with meaningless assignments designed to separate them from their peers rather than engage them with learning. I think the same has happened in science. For many people, science was what happened in a classroom or is done by someone else. But opportunities to see science, like sustainability, are all around us and if the current situation in the world has shown us anything, it hopefully is that science and sustainability affect us all every day. And we need to start thinking differently if we want to create equality and avoid the next pandemic.