Virginia Tech Magazine
Summer 2008

Planning for the future: The Earth Sustainability Series

We so often hear those clichéd, semi-catchy slogans that universities slap on themselves that they tend to draw a yawn more than any sort of philosophical response.

In February 2006, Virginia Tech initiated its own branding campaign in the form of the tagline "Invent the Future," which evolved from the school's reputation as a leading research university, and while sometimes these campaigns seem to be used more for publicity than academic vision, Virginia Tech has stayed true to its new tagline. One clear example of the innovative ways that Tech is fulfilling its mission comes in the form of the Earth Sustainability Series (ES).

A four-semester program, ES provides a unique way for students to integrate what they otherwise would learn in their Curriculum for Liberal Education--formerly the core curriculum--classes.

"We offer an alternative to the curriculum for liberal education," explains Cortney Martin, an industrial and systems engineering faculty member who is involved in ES. "Rather than take a selection of seemingly unrelated classes, students can participate in the ES course series over four semesters and satisfy five of seven areas. And better yet, we do so in small learning communities, and we examine the complexities of sustainability issues in a multitude of ways."

Having debuted in 2004, ES will launch again this fall with approximately 180 students. "We are equipping ES graduates to invent--or re-invent--their future and society's future in a pivotal time for our planet," Martin says. "Our students recognize that to invent the future in whatever their chosen field, they have to understand the context of past and present society and all that it encompasses at the intersections of culture, economics, science, humanities, engineering, philosophy, and the arts."

The program, which is designed for incoming freshmen, incorporates lectures, discussions, and hands-on exploration to allow students to fully grasp concepts and put them into practice. Students are split into groups of 25 to 30 to facilitate more intimate discussions and interactions. Course content is structured to teach learning skills, as opposed to traditional course content that provides limited real-world application.

Field trips and community projects are also a big part of the learning process, helping students understand that what they learn from a textbook or a professor can be applied to help shape their environment. Previously completed projects include working with the dining halls to reduce waste, coordinating recycling campaigns to encourage people to use reusable bags instead of plastic, and devising bottled water education programs that compare bottled water brought into the community to water obtained locally from the New River.

"Many of the incoming freshmen haven't even thought about sustainability issues or how they as individuals impact the local economy through purchasing power, for example," says Barbara Bekken, director of ES. "The students become completely aware that their choices impact the way the global community works. And as a result, they get plugged into their communities."

Caleb Davison, a junior public and urban affairs major who completed the program in May, agrees. "The trip to Joel Salatin's farm [was amazing]. We were learning about sustainable farming at the time, and to see his farm was like bringing all the material we were learning to life. All of the trips emphasized and added to the learning we were already doing inside the classroom, plus it gave us great times getting to know the other students and teachers in the class."

Earth Day 2008
On Earth Day 2008, students--shown here with faculty mentor Sean McGinnis--displayed their action project sculpture. The sculpture featured plastic bottles collected from campus trash cans to focus on the impact of not recycling.
While the students are the central focus of this program, ES has benefited others--most notably the faculty of Virginia Tech. The interdisciplinary approach of the program has given professors the opportunity to see the connections between their various interests.

"Two things make this really work for all of us," Bekken says. "The faculty share tremendous excitement and camaraderie when they start to see themselves and their students make connections and then again when they start to uncover the commonalities between what we each do. That's the point at which faculty really resonate around student learning and thinking, and that's exciting."

But, of course, the most important thing is the finished product--that is, the student who has completed the program versus the student who signed up in the first place. Bekken says that one of the most rewarding things about the ES series is watching those students develop over the four semesters. And since most of the participants are freshmen with no idea what to expect from college, ES strives not only to educate but also to help students grow as individuals.

"These students are so different by the time they finish their sophomore year. They're the kind of people that you are so incredibly impressed by," says Bekken. "They are articulate, excited; they want make something of their lives. They are at a point where they can really take advantage of what this great university has to offer--and they still have two years left in which to do it."

"I am definitely a different person," Davison says. "I have much more of a desire to change my life for the better and to get more involved in the community. It will show you how powerful a difference one person can make and give you the motivation to make those changes."

Going forward, the staff hopes that the mold for this ES series will translate into other interdisciplinary programs for incoming freshmen. The goal is that 13 percent of the incoming class, or about 600 students, will choose to participate in such opportunities. In addition, research conducted by Deb Olsen, a cognitive developmental psychologist who studies learning in higher-education settings, confirms that interdisciplinary learning is a better alternative to traditional methods.

"I firmly believe that the interdisciplinary learning community approach is an essential foundation for a sound education and a sound citizenry," says Martin. "The data collected by Deb Olsen's research group on student learning confirms that they are making epistemological gains that significantly surpass that of a control group that participated in a traditional liberal education program."

Bekken has high hopes for this type of learning as well and feels that it provides students with a great opportunity to take matters into their own hands.

"They end up saying, 'I can make choices, I can take action, and what I say and do will have an impact.'"

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Will McGough (management '07, psychology '07) is pursuing his master's degree in journalism at Temple University.

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