Sustainability Moves into the Classroom, across the Disciplines

Posted: February 25, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Karen Akerlof

What do camping and coal mines, and energy audits and activist art have to do with one another?

They are all part of a new wave of Mason courses incorporating sustainability concepts. Such courses began dotting the pages of the university’s course catalog this past term.

Last year, 20 Mason faculty members trained over two days in the “hows” of bringing sustainability into the classroom, and the “whys” of opening the classroom back out to the world through experiential learning. Another cohort of 12 took the workshop this past January.

The results of the first session, presented at a showcase last week titled “Going Green at Mason: Course Redesign for Sustainability,” reflected the applicability of sustainability to a diverse range of curricula, from physics to art to tourism. And the professors who spoke about their new courses, or new class components, said the effects on students can be life-changing.

As part of “Human Behavior and the Natural Environment,” taught by Laurie Harmon through the School of Recreation, Health and Tourism, students rated themselves using a personal environmental audit. Then everyone, including Harmon, posted their scores on the board in class.

“I have my impact issues, and they have their impact issues,” she says. “For the first time, they are getting a numerical representation.”

What were the results from this as well as her other course components? One student purchased a hybrid car, another chose carbon offsets and another began to think of the effects of family size choices in environmental terms, says Harmon.

“Some pretty high-impact discussions, I think. It is pretty amazing.”

New Century College’s Melanie Szulczewski took “Energy and the Environment,” which she says was “pretty dry,” and turned it inside out with a newly designed experiential portion.

Heading up to Pennsylvania with her students, “We spent a whole day looking at different coal mines and slag heaps,” says Szulczewski. In a class that counted for three physics credits, the professor couldn’t stray too far from energy calculations, but students brought in utility bills, comparing electricity to natural gas, and analyzed power sources for other countries where fossil fuel reliance isn’t the norm.

“The physics was still there in this class, but it was all applied,” says Szulczewski.

Thinking and acting entirely outside the box defined the novel methods of addressing climate change in Art and Visual Technology’s “Art as Social Action.”

“In the fall, if you saw some unusual events on campus, it was probably our students,” remarks the department’s Lynne Constantine, who revamped the class with New Century College’s Suzanne Scott, as well as launching a one-credit course with Art and Visual Technology’s Tom Ashcraft called “The Sustainability Project.”

In a group silent gesture, one team of students recreated the famous “hockey stick” graph of global warming using their bodies to recreate the slope with its recent sharp upward tilt. Another group envisioned the melt of Glacier National Park as a set of chocolate frosted cakes – one festively decorated with green “trees” and white “glaciers” while the 2070 projected cake is just – brown.

Andrew Wingfield
Andrew Wingfield

“I think you got a sense of how many different contexts (sustainability) can apply,” says New Century College’s Andrew Wingfield, who led last week’s showcase with Environmental Science and Policy’s Susie Crate.

Together they also developed “Fostering Sustainability in the 21st Century,” which ran for the first time last fall semester.

Crate and Wingfield took their students to Polyface Farm in southwestern Virginia to learn about farming techniques that replenish soil vitality and make effective use of the natural interweaving of ecological niches of different species of domesticated animals. As they camped nearby in the mountains, the students prepared and ate locally grown foods. “It’s this whole new way of being,” says Crate.

Susie Crate with Al Gore
Susie Crate with Al Gore at one of the former vice president’s training sessions on environmentalism.
Photo courtesy of Susie Crate

In 2007, Crate and Dave Kuebrich, English, launched the first workshop in conjunction with University Life and the Center for Teaching Excellence, which funded their training, as well as the Provost’s Office and the deans of colleges, which paid stipends for the faculty who successfully designed and implemented courses with sustainability components.

This first faculty showcase of the courses that resulted, sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence, marked a full circle of the program from inception to completion of a series of courses taught on Mason’s campuses.

Wingfield, Crate and Szulczewski have taken the momentum from the first two workshops to plan a new interdisciplinary minor in sustainability studies housed in Environmental Science and Policy and New Century College. The proposed minor would include a 200-level introductory course, “Global Sustainability and You,” taught by Szulczewski, and a 400-level capstone course, “Sustainability in Action,” where students would tackle sustainability-related projects on campus and in the wider community. Courses like those showcased last week would serve as electives for students pursuing the minor.

“I think what it all leads toward is a shift in perspective that’s ultimately a culture shift,” says Wingfield. “In a time of environmental crisis, we need to think more intentionally and explicitly about the choices we make as individuals and as a society.”

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