Student-led Course Teaches Sustainability – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Student-led Course Teaches Sustainability

Like Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green” for the students in “Practical Sustainability.” They’re working hard to make personal commitments to becoming more conscious of their impact on the environment. In the process, these students have faced many social, economic, personal and institutional obstacles that make living green difficult. Fortunately, “Practical Sustainability,” a student-led course, is giving them all the guidance they need. The innovative course focusing on action more than awareness, enabling its students to develop the practical skills needed for sustainable living throughout their lives. In addition to several green experiments, the course includes readings and discussions about ecological, philosophical, practical and spiritual theories about sustainable living. “Many environmentally-friendly practices aren’t just one time actions; they are lifestyle changes,” explains Assistant Professor of Education Paul Kehle, adviser to the course. “Installing a compact-fluorescent light bulb is an environmentally sustainable practice, but after it’s installed you’re done. However, finding ways to reduce the trash you produce requires constant thought. There are times in each of our lives when it appears impossible not to be wasteful.” Kehle also notes that being green can be socially hard because new behaviors might put you out of sync with friends. “I had problems with the weather, my social life and people’s attitudes,” Kaitlyn VanNostrand ’08 reflected on her commitment not to drive or ride in a car for two weeks. “But looking back, I was happy that I did it.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges involved in being different, these students found they were teaching their friends about green living, and they had become role models for their friends and peers. Senior and RecycleMania expert Molly Chudleigh reduced her water use by taking shorter showers and showering less frequently. She also convinced her housemates to take shorter showers because it would save them money on their water bill. In addition to giving their friends pointers, these students are also learning how to live a simpler life amid the abundance of material goods surrounding them on a daily basis. “Many people do not realize how much energy, natural resources and waste are involved in manufacturing the material goods we consume,” says Kehle. “Moreover, the attachments people develop to these material goods further disconnect us from the natural world that must sustain our lives as well as provide material luxuries.” Some students found hidden benefits in their sustainability experiments. Alix Coursen ’09 gave up her cell phone for two-weeks. When people questioned why, she told them about the harmful chemicals that are inside cell phones and why they are unsustainable. She found she enjoyed the freedom of not carrying around a phone and worrying whether or not it was safe. In the end, students often found that living green was not so hard once they developed strategies for sticking to their commitment. Kaitlin Eisenhut ’08 became a vegetarian for two weeks and discovered that she really didn’t miss meat much. She also realized not eating meat was healthier not just for the environment, but also for her. But their strategies don’t end at graduation. Students have also strategized how they can live sustainably when they buy their first apartment and even later when they settle down in their careers and family. A major project in the course has been analyzing their dream home and then modifying that home into their “Green Dream Home.” The students will compile these plans for sustainable living, as well as reflections on the experiments, in individual “sustainable toolkit” portfolios which are meant to remind them how to stay green when they leave HWS. The course was first envisioned by Nathan Taxel ’07 when he was a student in Kehle’s “Teaching for a Sustainable Environment” course. For the final project in that course, students have to create a project that raises awareness of environmental sustainability issues on campus. Taxel designed the curriculum for the “Practical Sustainability” course as his final project, but then had the opportunity to teach it to six students as his Senior Integrative Experience in Environmental Studies last spring. Christine Moskell ’08 was a student in Nathan’s course and agreed to teach it this spring to support other students who wanted to explore the same issues. The approach of Taxel’s course also inspired her to pursue an Honors project in which she committed to eating locally grown foods for an entire academic year, and to analyzing the local foods movement in light of her experiences. Kehle has been so impressed with the work taking place in this student-led experimental course, that he decided to incorporate much of it in “Teaching for a Sustainable Environment” next fall. By including personal sustainability experiments in class, more students will have an opportunity to study their own ecological footprints. “Of course, you don’t have to take any course to start your own experiment in green living—we challenge each of you to begin one today!” exclaims Kehle. Five students are in the student-led course this semester and share memoirs from their own green-living experiences in the hope of inspiring other students to also “go green.”

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