The New Sustainability U.

Grand Valley State, in Michigan, is betting its interdisciplinary and hands-on method of teaching sustainability will set it apart from the crowd.
January 25, 2010

WASHINGTON – At the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, professors from Grand Valley State University described a handful of the interdisciplinary and community-based initiatives they offer on the theory and practice of environmental, social and economic sustainability.

What sets their sustainability programs apart from those found elsewhere in the country, the Grand Valley group argued, is that they were started and have grown out of student demand.

“I ask students almost in every class that I teach what the big issues facing their generation are, and for the last three years the environment has been one of the top three issues that students list,” said Judy Whipps, associate professor of liberal studies and philosophy. “Usually, it’s number one. This year, it was replaced by economic and job issues, but the environment was number two.”

The professors also said that their university’s location and mission as a “teaching institution” allow their students to take the skills they learn and apply them directly in the nearby community. Grand Valley is located 12 miles west of Grand Rapids in small town of Allendale, Mich.

First among the many curricular options for environmentally minded students at Grand Valley is the major in liberal studies – a program that allows students to create their own program of study – with an emphasis in sustainability. Though the sustainability focus means different things to different people, Grand Valley has settled on the following definition for its programs: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

The sustainability track within liberal studies is flexible, but Grand Valley has identified a number of courses -- in disciplines ranging from anthropology and business to biology and sociology -- that students can take as part of the major. The build-your-own-major feel of the program seems more in line with a small liberal arts college than a large state university, and students in the liberal studies program praise the freedom it gives them to discover their inner passions.

“I started in pre-med and dealt mostly with science classes and lecture halls,” said Michael Medonis, now a liberal studies major with an emphasis on sustainability. “But, one of my intro to liberal studies courses that we all have to take exposed me to a different type of more-engaged learning. It was more response than recitation. … I’m very passionate about personal, social and environmental responsibility. I think those are things that the sustainability initiatives at Grand Valley are based on and that students believe in and can participate in, so it was easy choice for me to pick sustainability as my emphasis.”

Students like Medonis have the opportunity to take “Sustainability in Practice,” a 400-level directed practicum course, one of which is required for all liberal studies majors as a capstone experience. Students in this course are placed at one of a number of community partner organizations that are practicing “sustainability” in various ways. Therefore, most of the work required of students in this course takes place on the ground with these Allendale and Grand Rapids community organizations.

Some of the community partner groups include a “local biodiesel co-op,” a “citizen coalition for the promotion of public urban greenspace” and a “local economic development organization.” The benefit of the class, therefore, is twofold.

Photo: Grand Valley State

Students working on the biodiesel project.

“Students are not just out in the world doing,” said Melissa Baker-Boosamra, who teaches the course and is the faculty practicum director. “They have, through the directed practicum course, an academic context for their practical works. Through readings, films, group reflection and discussion, they are thinking of and informing the work that they’re doing in the world with their academic and theoretic understanding. … Also, it’s not just that students are out in the world doing good things for themselves and their own learning. We partner with community organizations that specifically outline their goals, projects and needs, and we find ways to really respond to those and collaborate.”

The class only meets once every other week, and it meets on-site at one of the community organizations for discussion and interaction with each group. Students in the class pick one of the many community groups and must complete at least 125 hours of community service with them during the semester. They also must complete analytic journals of their experience for review by their professor and classmates.

“I’ve heard from students and seen with my own eyes that there’s a transformation within students when they take this course,” said Baker-Boosarmra. “They learn to identify a problem, understand it and then figure out ways in which they can act on it.”

To the pride of their instructors and pleasure of their community partners, many of the students in this capstone course continue to volunteer with these groups long after their obligation to do so has ended.

“The biggest thing I’m going to take out of this course, now that I’m out of it, is that this education continues outside of the classroom,” Medonis said. “It’s not like you take this course, you study, you take a final and you’re done with it.“

For those not sold on the choose-your-own liberal studies major, Grand Valley introduced the more conventional environmental studies minor this past fall. As in many comparable programs around the country, students take courses specific to the minor such as those in environmental science. Like the liberal studies majors, they are also required to venture far outside the scientific disciplines to take courses in English, history and politics.

“This is not a purely science minor,” said Kirsten Bartels, a visiting professor of liberal studies. “Science is a very important component, but let’s be honest: Science alone didn’t create the environmental crisis we face today, so science along can’t solve the problems we face today. … We need people to get past their own discipline. In this minor, people respect their own disciplines but also show students to have respect for a variety of disciplines an dhow they come together to address the different issues.”

In recent years, Grand Valley has transformed itself into a sustainability center. Nearly 13 percent of the credit hours offered at the university have a sustainability related theme, and 2,500 students – more than a tenth of the student body – are enrolled in these courses. And there are almost 200 sustainability projects in the Grand Rapids area involving students.

Perhaps the largest project sponsored by the university is Grand Valley State Community Garden. Bart Bartels, director of the sustainable community development initiative, said that the university rents out plots in the garden for students and community members to plant whatever they want, as long as it is grown organically. Some of the food is provided to Grand Valley’s campus dining. Bartels explained that a majority of the yield, however, is sold to the local community at a university-sponsored farmers' market held during the temperate months of the year.

Photo: Grand Valley State

Students working in the community garden.

Grand Valley is getting closer and closer to closing the loop on its campus.

“If you think about what we have now,” Bartels said,” We’ve got campus dining providing compost for the community garden. The community garden is growing vegetables for campus dining. Dining, then, is providing food [cooking] oil for biodiesel production, and the biodiesel will eventually be powering machinery for the community garden. At the community garden, anything that is grown will be sold at the farmers' market, which will finance the interns that make the whole system sustainable. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re on our way.”


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