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May 14, 2009

Class Notes: Students research ways to make UW campus more sustainable

Class title: ENVIR 450: For Your Information (FYI): Roots and Realities of Sustainability, taught by Jason Scullion, a graduate student in the College of Forest Resources and the Evans School of Public Affairs, and Julia Parrish, professor and associate director of aquatic and fishery sciences.


Description: In this two-part class, 15 students learn about the historical roots and various definitions of sustainability, then explore and analyze the UW to figure out how it could be more sustainable. This quarter — the first this class has been offered — students focus on sustainability practices related to water; future topics may include energy and transportation. Student teams partner with staff, including campus utility workers, to research topics like the efficiency of water flow in showers at the IMA, or the layout of storm-water drains on campus. The teams’ findings will all be part of a final class project. In the second part of the class, students regroup into three teams, each with specific responsibilities: writing the final class report, creating accompanying graphics and presenting research findings to the UW community at the end of the quarter. Ultimately — after a few more quarters of the class — the information will be available on an FYI Web site that Parrish envisions as a “one-stop shop” for sustainable information about the UW.


Instructor’s views: “The vision is to give us a greater understanding of what is happening on the University campus, and what can happen if we make certain changes in certain areas,” Scullion said. “It’s a class designed to give students an opportunity to learn research skills and to learn about their University, but also to contribute to greater knowledge throughout the campus community.”


Parrish said it’s important for students to learn about the logistical side of the University that is rarely seen in day-to-day campus life — for example, they meet with the people who decide what kind of bottled water to buy for vending machines, or who figure out how much sewage goes down the toilets each day and how to deal with the waste.


“FYI is about meeting those behind-the-scenes people and realizing those people are the ones with the power to effect change regarding sustainability,” she said.


Scullion said the class also teaches students important tools for delivering information about sustainability to others. For example, one assignment is for students to write a memo to Gov. Chris Gregoire about steps she should take given the recent findings of the Washington Climate Change Impact Assessment (WCCIA). “The students are basically thinking, what does a policymaker need to know?” Scullion explained. “What matters to them?”


The class as a whole, he said, “revolves around the idea that knowledge is power, and if people understand sustainability and what the goals and principles are, they have a lot more choice in using sustainable practices.”


Unexpected experiences: Scullion said a “happy surprise” has been the students’ excitement about their research projects.


“The students who are in this class care a lot about the subject and care a lot about learning more,” he said. “I think they feel empowered that they have the opportunity to explore something and use that exploration to make a difference.”


Parrish said she has been surprised while developing the larger project that will come out of FYI — the Web site, which she hopes will one day be able to tell users everything from where to find the most organic, locally grown meal on campus to the exact energy-use of the building they’re sitting in.


“People have been amazing — really volunteering all sorts of interesting ideas,” she said. “Faculty from different units — graphic arts, history, computer science — have said, ‘Wow, that’s a really great idea!’ That kind of interdisciplinary experience is what we’re all striving for as the next big thing in learning.”


Student views: Megan McCain, a senior in the Program on the Environment, said she took the class “to get something done on campus.” She enjoyed the flexibility and freedom to choose a research focus that interested her the most — a “ban the bottle” campaign against bottled water — and thinks the students’ findings will help spur change at the UW.


“Daily, I’m intrigued by my classmates’ and professors’ ideas,” McCain wrote in an e-mail. “It’s definitely one of the best courses I’ve taken at the UW. I find it to be not only informative but also proactive — something that’s important on a university campus.”


Assignments: Students first write a three-page memo to Gov. Gregoire about the findings of the WCCIA. The goal is to provide her with three to five ideas that will help mitigate or adapt to the projected climate challenges outlined in the report.


Then, students form teams and choose an aspect of water sustainability on campus to research. Teams must complete a research proposal, PowerPoint presentation, two oral progress reports and a final report that includes a written abstract of the research and three of the following: a Google map, Excel graph, YouTube video, a poster or graphics.


The final class project will synthesize the efforts of each research team into accessible products for the campus community, including a presentation of research findings to the UW community. Anyone who is interested in learning about sustainability at the UW is welcome to attend the presentation on June 9 from 3:30 – 5 p.m. in MGH 274.


Reading: A selection of articles and reports about sustainability and communication that address ethics, economics, design, biochemistry, business, globalization, technology and Washington-specific information. Examples include “Emerging water shortages,” by Lester Brown; “It’s only natural: Natural design holds the key to more sustainable design,” by Jeremy Smith; and “State of the Sound,” a report prepared by the Puget Sound Action Team.

Class Notes is an occasional column that describes interesting or unusual classes at the UW.