From time to time, I rant about sustainability explicitly from the point of view of a farmer. That's because I believe that farmers -- more and more unlike the majority of folks in North America -- experience and interact with the biosphere directly. Which is not to say that we always gain great wisdom from, and exercise exquisite stewardship in, those interactions of course. But even our most ineffective (or negatively effective) interactions are -- as a result of direct physical involvement -- informed by a wider range of considerations and potential understanding than could possibly be conveyed in a YouTube video. Or a textbook. Or a lecture. The information bandwidth of real life simply dwarfs every communication channel on campus, which is one of the reasons that it benefits students so much to get out of the campus environment.
Now, that's not an attack on campus life. The information bandwidth on most campuses far exceeds what most students experienced in high school, which is why the first year of college is such a challenge for many undergrads. But a semester abroad generally offers a much more informative experience than the alternative, and the first year off campus (especially if the student moves out on his/her own and into the workforce) imposes a similar increase in information influx. The undergraduate experience is (when successful) a step on the road from lesser to greater information, involvement, understanding, responsibility, engagement and several other big concepts. At Greenback (as, I'm sure, at a lot of schools), the rate at which the information channels expand is designed, more or less, to fit our "typical" student. Which means that it expands too quickly for some, and too slowly -- sometimes, far too slowly -- for others.
A few of the faculty I work with, when presented with an under-challenged undergraduate, will offer the student an opportunity to get engaged in their research. That's great, when it happens. But Greenback isn't just a four-year school, we have a significant number of grad students available in most disciplines; unless some research project has truly flooded its banks, the grad student supply is generally sufficient to meet the research assistant demand. Thus, it's relatively rare here for an undergrad to get a chance to engage in significant, faculty-led scholarship.
Thus, on occasion, I've arranged for undergrads to engage in potentially significant research not led by any faculty member. Not that I'm running an end-around on the faculty -- I always look for some prof who's willing to serve as an advisor, or at least a co-advisor, on the project. But the topic of the research is generally shaped by the needs of a local NGO or cooperative, the goal of the activity is at least as much individual learning (and meta-learning) as it is publishable (even on campus) scholarship, and the research methods employed generally don't meet any sort of recognizable standards. So why do I call it "research" at all? Because, in a very real way, these students are researching at least an aspect of real life and, in the process, they're learning to drink from the information fire hose that real life tends to stick in their mouths.
What I'm able to arrange as a staff member is kind of a bastardized real-world learning experience. I wish it were better: more common, more thorough, better integrated into their overall learning experience. But there are structural hurdles to be overcome before any of that can happen. The most obvious one is that, for many faculty members, their research is strictly compartmentalized far away from at least their undergraduate teaching; the idea that research -- hands-on learning, even if it doesn't result in publishable scholarship -- can be a highly effective mode of learning just doesn't fit into their understanding of their responsibilities. (And depending on departmental culture, they're probably right. At least, at present.) Additionally, for professors who do try to inform their classroom teaching with their research interests and activities, the site of the research is often a thousand miles or more removed from the classroom. In terms of student learning, then, the research is a source of some interesting anecdotes, but the informational bandwidth provided is little wider than would be true of any lecture-style presentation. As has been preached for at least the past half-century, students typically learn faster, better and more comprehensively when they have direct involvement; research- and project-based learning are ways to increase that sort of engaged, involved learning.
The question that remains, then, is why so often faculty research is conducted such a long distance from campus. And the obvious reason is "because that's where the interesting questions are". Which implies that all the questions nearby are no longer interesting, -- that processes, activities and products nearby have all been sufficiently studied. Which might well be true but, if it is true then it's true at least in part because the processes, activities and products nearby represent such a narrow slice of the variety that exists worldwide. Because logic declares that processes, activities and products occur only where relative advantage is greatest. But "relative advantage" in that context refers only to relative economic advantage, and economic advantage (relative or otherwise) doesn't distribute equally across any population. A paucity of nearby research opportunities -- of processes, activities and products with which to get actively involved -- doesn't convey direct advantage upon students. Nor faculty members. Nor any society's efforts to become sustainable. While optimally efficient economic organization does by definition create some benefit, that benefit has to be weighed against a number of offsetting costs also created. The non-economic benefits -- teaching opportunities, research opportunities, others that we'll see later -- of sub-optimally distributing small pockets of a variety of business processes, activities and products across many geographic regions could far outweigh the costs associated with the minimal economic inefficiencies that would be created.
And even having the discussion of how -- whether -- to do that could broaden the social discourse that's key to understanding (much less achieving) any sort of sustainability.