Making Our Campus More Sustainable and Democratic

Eric Chase, South Puget Sound Community College


With the goal of addressing sustainability within the bioregion, students will generate their own assessment of the needs of the particular learning institution in which they are a part of, in a sense, a giant student generated service learning project around the topic of campus sustainability. The main foci of this assignment are to determine the needs of the particular institution, the self-design by the students within that institution and the implementation of those attainable goals.

This course may be built upon each quarter or recreated to address dynamic situations. Furthermore, several parallel courses may be implemented based upon the interests of the students, the diversity of perceived institutional needs and the optimum number of students needed for any particular project.

Learning Goals

From a sociological perspective, this particular assignment will focus primarily on the immediate socializing institution of the college campus. The primary question will be: "What changes in this campus may be implemented to make this institution more sustainable?"

It is important to note that the "big idea" of this assignment isn't the project generated by the students, but rather getting them to create and implement their "big idea"... their assignment. The assignment itself is opening up the discussion of what sustainability is, what the concept of the bio-region is and why are these concepts important in finding solutions for the economic and environmental crisis, not recreating overly hierarchical, undemocratic, non-sustainable projects and coordinating bodies. The beginning of the course should address some of the major social problems of today, perhaps linking them to historic events and seeing the progression to today's concerns.

Context for Use

While many sustainability projects identify specific themes for student involvement, this particular project will be based upon student generated assignments created by the perceived needs of that particular campus. The main motivation for this is a sense of democratization within the designing process and visioning process of sustainability. Local decision making is at its core more sustainable.

Once needs are defined, students will then lay the groundwork on implementing their recommendations. This allows for open ended solutions that may not be completed within the allotted time, but may create movement toward that end. Possibilities for this assignment may include revamping a college's compost system, which may be completed in a quarter, or proposing organic rooftop gardens which would include maintenance, horticulture, student groups and the President's office and may only be realized long after the students who initiated this concept have left the institution.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This assignment is primarily designed to be used with a Social Problems class (SOC245), but may be adapted to environmental studies, engineering, civics or several other courses. Another possibility would be a linked or coordinated studies course. This assignment is designed for the latter half of an academic quarter, but can be lengthened depending on the academic calendar of the institution or stretched out over several quarters.

Description and Teaching Materials

In an effort to address the needs of society to become more sustainable, emphasis has been leveled at the local level or in common terms of sustainability of the bioregion. From a sociological perspective, this particular assignment will focus primarily on the immediate socializing institution of the college campus. The primary question will be: "What changes in this campus may be implemented to make this institution more sustainable?" In this spirit of intentional design of our environment with the purpose of sustained economic activity, food production, self-governance, access to health-care, transportation, education, information and democratization, students will first define the concepts and terms of sustainability, bioregion, democracy and community. They will be able to explain what is meant by "best practices" and externalities (cost/benefit analysis).


By the third week of a twelve week quarter, students should have an opportunity to brainstorm how their particular campus could address change within itself. Discussion may focus on the role of the college campus to the larger society. Should students' focus be on the campus community or the impact that the campus has on the larger community? I foresee an emphasis on food production, waste and ethical purchasing being in the forefront of student generated assignments, but would not be surprised if some didn't address communications (radio, television and print media), transportation (public transportation, car pooling, bicycle commuting), campus carbon footprint measuring and decision making (student involvement in contracts, building design, course selection). A large mapping project might be a good suggestion for a group project.

By mid-term students should have already formed up focus groups (individuals with like or similar ideas and passions) to brainstorm practical solutions to problems they've identified on campus. What existing bodies would traditionally address these ideas? Is it more effective to go through pre-existing entities, network several committees or groups together or to create a new entity? What form will new groups take? Will it be totally student generated? Will they have to involve groups or individuals outside of the campus community? Identify the stakeholders and create a culture of investment. Student constituency might go through a pre-existing student governing board. One potential project may simply be measuring campus interest and concern with a large in-depth survey or several teach-ins. It is important for students to inventory what the campus is already doing and work with the facilities department. This prevents redundancy and may allow for transforming or upgrading pre-existing structures and possibly generate long-term projects and goals.

Some in class time would be devoted for basic skills building as well. Facilitation and consensus decision making skills, ethnographic survey methods, qualitative vs. quantitative work and basic statistical analysis will be important lectures and workshops.

It is essential for the instructor to keep a manageable number of groups and enterprises as it could be very easy for this to become very large. Pulling the students back into the class seems like a challenge when the projects themselves may take on lives of their own. Differentiating between what is required for the class and what is required for the project may also need defining.

The final week should be a project presentation with an overview, results and potential future issues addressed. I foresee some assignments being bigger than the confines of the class.

The Learning Activities

Though I dedicate the first week or so to the basics of sociology since it is not a prerequisite for Social Problems (SOC245), I make sure that every day is started out with discussion on current events. The events I pay particular attention to are environmental and economic with emphasis on local and regional issues. By the second week we are identifying global stratification and again I try to bring this home with disparity within our own communities. Much of the focus is Conflict Theory and identifying who are the "have's and the have not's", recognizing trends in wealth distribution and how a changing economy and climate exacerbate this. I recommend a review of [], [] and [] for news headlines and [] for audio and video news each day before class.

By week three the class should be primed for identifying issues that their campus could change or have a positive impact upon the greater community. A quick in class brainstorm can narrow down themes. Major consideration may be given to food, waste, transportation, construction, information systems and the like. Coordinating students into like themes and forming up groups would be the main part of week three. Those groups would then decide on a primary field of concern, meet with each other and start devising their projects. I think that no more than four groups, depending upon class size and project proposals, would be manageable.

I foresee a substantial amount of independent and group work. Instructors need to be aware of group work dynamics and be on the watch for the students not pulling their weight. Having "mini-contracts" with individual members of the group may be needed.

Specific Assignments

Bio-Region Quiz - This should be given during the first week of class. Starting off with this quiz frames the student's awareness of the bioregion, the concepts of sustainability and democratic processes. I encourage questions on miles your meal travels, what types of local production are there? What is the carbon footprint of any given building? And, how much waste the average American produces each year. A nice exercise that may go along with this is to attempt to eat for a day only food that was produced within 100 miles of the campus and to carry around all the garbage (plastic wrappers, paper coffee cups...) that the student creates in one week.

Campus Survey - Survey the campus. Include students, staff and faculty in the survey. Try to measure the campus' knowledge of sustainability, current campus projects like recycling, waste management, composting... Find out what people view as needs of the campus.

Administrative Interviews - After focus groups are determined, arrange for short interviews with various administrators and staff people about pre-existing programs that would fit into the sustainability program. Each group would then report back to the entire class on their findings.

Seminars - Regular group meetings to discuss internal plans of the group are necessary. This check-in is vital to maintain direction of the group, ensure all individuals know their responsibilities within the group and as a check-in with the instructor so that they may monitor full student participation.

Group Meetings - This is to provide direction from the instructor as well as formalizing the final project and assessment of the project, submission of project proposals and perhaps vision statements or goals. A prompting question may be "What is your ultimate end result?"

Campus Work - After meeting with administrators & staff, take a tour of the existing programs or trouble areas. Discuss the philosophy of any pre-existing programs' purpose and goals. I suggest, cafeteria purchasing, vending machines, any grounds department, horticultural or greenhouse, waste management, recycling and composting.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Ultimately, the final student projects should also have substantial publicity. It may even be a significant part of the project presentation. Publication in student newspapers, coverage by the administration, website coverage (linked with the college's sustainability programs) as well as local media should be an integral part of the assessment. The final project may not be the project itself, but the ensuing discussion and critique of the effectiveness of the projects and/or proposals. This hopefully would have the effect of spurring similar projects for both academic and non-academic purposes.

Assessment would be based upon the ultimate effectiveness of the project. Did it set attainable goals? If the goals were not immediately attainable, did the project set up mechanisms for the furtherance of those goals beyond the scope of the class? Was the effectiveness of the project open for public scrutiny after the fact? How were issues of sustainability, concerns for the bioregion, the community and concepts of democratic decision making addressed? What could have been done better?

These questions should be answered in a written evaluation by all the students within the group, by any school officials involved as applicable, by any community members involved as applicable, by the professors involved and ideally by a feedback from the public (campus or community as applicable). For simplification, a simple rating scale of 1-5 may make data collection easier with a space for commentary.

References and Resources

Weekly check-ins amongst the groups would prove useful for cross-pollination of ideas, information and strategies. James Henslin's text, Social Problems is our standard text, but a smaller more concise text or collection of essays may be more applicable, such as:
  • "Eco-Economy" by Lester Brown #0-939-32193-2
  • "The Environment and Society Reader" by R. Scott Frey #0-205-30876-7
  • "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" by Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck #0-86547-606-3
  • Ecotopia by Ernest Callembach
Use of essays and student activism websites are an immensely valuable tool. Possible articles may include:
Films may include:
  • "Guns, Germs and Steel"
Possible resources may include:
Articles appear regularly in college newspapers as well as mainstream and alternative press and are always being updated.