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Seminar on Sustainability in Europe: What are the Limits of Possibility?

Mary Ann Cunningham
Vassar College, Earth Science and Geography
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I describe here an 11-day faculty field trip to Europe that focused on experiential learning in alternative transportation, planning, energy, and other systems. Although this "activity" is not as readily reproduced as a regular lab, I present it here because it is also not impossible to reproduce, and it turned out to be surprisingly worthwhile as a model. Groups of students, faculty, and non-academics organized trips quite often, and this model could easily transfer to a wide variety of groups, from students to faculty to professionals.

Learning Goals

Our goals were

Context for Use

This type of trip could be useful for a variety of study-abroad contexts, international studies trips that include field trips, summer study trips, J-term trips, and faculty groups, or environmental clubs. Faculty bring very useful expertise to the process, but I believe groups of any age could bring useful ideas and experiences to the daily conversations in which we processed and digested our observations. Our tour was 11 days, but this could be longer or could be a portion of another trip. A longer trip would allow for greater understanding, but faculty could not afford more time. A shorter trip would provide fewer opportunities for learning. The trip could be done in the US, but placing the conversations in the EU put ideas in stark relief and made the conversations very interesting. If the trip were not embedded in a particular course (as ours wasn't), then each participant should be explicit ahead of time about what experience they bring to the group and how the trip would contribute to their work/course of study/professional plans.

Description and Teaching Materials

This field trip gave participants the opportunity to

(1) experience first-hand several alternative transportation systems, energy systems, and the planning strategies surrounding them; and

(2) engage in regular and sustained discussions about what social, cultural, and economic conditions make these systems possible. In particular, participants bicycled throughout several cities (a novel experience for most); met with representatives of energy, planning, and other agencies; and produce a summary statement that evaluated observations and the limits of transferability to a US context.

We rented bikes to tour three cities (Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Frieburg) and met with representatives from energy, transportation, planning, and other agencies. The trip was inspired in part by Tim Beatley's Green Urbanism book (which has recently been updated after ~ 10 years). The aim of this trip was to give faculty direct experience that they could take back to their colleges. It sounds as though a number have done so, organizing comparable trips for students, new courses, workshops and other activities. Basically there's no education as effective as experience.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Assessment was done only in terms of the reports put on the blog after the trip ( A very quick turn-around is necessary on this, otherwise reports will not be turned in. A blog is an easy way to post and distribute reports. We are now in the process of producing a final, cleaned-up version of these reports, but we are not editing submissions.

References and Resources

Timothy Beatley (ed.) 2012. Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism. Washington, DC: Island Press

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer. 2009. Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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