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First Years Explore Sustainable Living

Posted on Tuesday, April 08, 2014

This fall, more than 50 first-year students are exploring sustainability and consumption through a new Learning Community, "Sustainable Living." The two-semester long program emphasizes the relationship between local actions and global effects.

"Sustainable Living gives students interested in any aspect of sustainability a strong start academically and toward their careers," explains Thomas Drennen, professor of economics and chair of the environmental studies program. "Over the course of the next four years, they will have opportunities to accomplish so many cool things on campus and in the community that will get them ready to go off to their careers."

Drennen notes the Learning Community is taught by faculty who have different academic backgrounds and they are looking for and expect students to enroll who bring different perspectives and interests.

"We'll form a like-minded community focused on sustainability, but we will all be coming at it from different directions," he says. "We want students with a wide range of interests or backgrounds, not necessarily just those who intend to pursue environmental studies. Our hope is that this program will enable students to bring sustainability with them into their major."

The Learning Community is taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Kristen Brubaker, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Robin Lewis, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Tarah Rowse, and led by Drennen, who is also co-chair of the President's Climate Task Force. Additionally, Eco-Reps and upperclass students, who have expertise in sustainability, serve as teaching assistants and mentors.

As part of a Learning Community, all 56 members are living together in the same co-ed residence hall along with four specially-selected resident assistants (RA). The RAs are committed to the programming of Sustainable Living and will direct activities that support green efforts throughout the year. The residence hall has seminar rooms and a kitchen designed for this Learning Community, so classroom experiences take place there and the group will be able to cook and eat together. Additionally, two of the participating faculty have offices in the residence hall, as do the teaching assistants.

This fall, members of the Learning Community are enrolled in one of four sections of the First Year Seminar (FYSEM) "Consuming the World." The course considers the life cycle of the things we as consumers buy, use and throw away. It explores the complex relationship between sustainability and consumption, paying specific attention to the myriad ways in which individual consumption practices shape global outcomes. Additionally, "Consuming the World" serves as a prerequisite for future environmental studies courses.

One day each week, all 56 students and the faculty and teaching assistants take part in a combined course to share their perspectives and discuss weekly experiments they're taking part in, such as a plastic-free week, meat-free week, maximum recycling challenge and more.

"Having the whole Learning Community take on these weekly lifestyle experiments together enables them to really participate in, write and think about the challenge while also having the full support of those around them," explains Drennen.

In the spring, students will remain in their sections, taking a linked course that will extend learning throughout the year to create an integrated, interdisciplinary experience.

In each semester, field trips throughout the region such as to landfills, a composting facility, recycling center, on and around Seneca Lake, and to the Colleges' 35-acre farm will provide opportunities to learn more about Geneva and the Finger Lakes. Special lectures will be delivered by global leaders in the sustainability field and a weekly exploration lab will include hands-on tutorials.

"I expect there to be much debate about the complex issue of sustainability, especially among the faculty," says Drennen. "It will be a lot of fun to be in a class with my colleagues discussing these issues, as well as with students. In many cases, we'll be learning alongside them."

The Learning Community reinforces the Colleges' dedication to a campus-wide effort of environmental sustainability and a more complete education towards its mission. Among the Colleges' campus-wide sustainability efforts are the successful implementation of the Eco-Rep Program, the "Caught Green Handed" campaign, participation for the past five years in national recycling competition RecycleMania, and such recent programs as the Green Room Certification and Green Office Certification. Additionally, the Colleges compost nearly 100 percent of pre-consumer and post-consumer food waste from the dining facilities and more than 80 percent of HWS' cleaning materials are green certified.

The Colleges have a number of student organizations working towards creating more sustainable residential areas and spearheading initiatives on campus to reduce the school's environmental impact, but students also take an active role in collaborating with the greater Geneva community on various environmental projects. From water quality to sustainable economic development, Hobart and William Smith's Finger Lakes Institute has been integral in coordinating and facilitating meaningful sustainability student projects that connect HWS with individuals and institutions from the Finger Lakes region.

In 2013, the Colleges were again included in the fourth annual edition of "The Princeton Review's Guide to 322 Green Colleges." Hobart and William Smith are a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. They were named as finalists for the 2013 Second Nature Climate Leadership Awards and received a 2012 Green Power Leadership Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sierra Magazine has ranked HWS as among "America's Coolest Schools," and the Colleges were recognized by the Sustainability Endowment Institute in 2011, when it assigned HWS a grade of B+ in its annual Sustainability Report Card.

 


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