Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2012

Instilling a sense of sustainability in a large introductory course

Brooke Crowley, Geology and Anthropology, University of Cincinnati

My philosophy has been defined both by my experiences as an instructor and as a student. I am fortunate to have been strongly influenced by exceptional professors and mentors throughout my academic career. In turn, it is my goal to inspire and encourage students. I have just finished teaching a course called "Humans and Nature: Living in the Anthropocene". Everything about this course was interdisciplinary. Half of my students signed up for an Anthropology course and half signed up for a Geology course. We covered a broad spectrum of topics including geologic time, atmospheric and oceanic circulation, domestication and the agricultural revolution, urbanism, environmental impacts associated with our modern lifestyles, and solutions for a sustainable future. Many of these topics have had a significant impact on my own life and are responsible for my initial desire to go into academia and teach. I developed my lesson plan from scratch. Readings included chapters from several textbooks, articles and popular readings. I incorporated a sense of stewardship and sustainability in this course. Course assignments were designed to teach students real world lessons. For example, I asked students to calculate their ecological footprints and their water use, and to keep a journal about what they consumed for a week.

I endeavored to gets students as involved as possible in this large lecture course. For example, I asked students to discuss questions in small groups and then report back to the class. I also created low stakes writing assignments to help students start writing down their thoughts without worrying about a grade. Students were given a thought question (i.e. "what is nature") and asked to write their response for 5-10 minutes. Volunteers then shared what they wrote. Responses were not graded but counted towards attendance and participation. In addition to these more formal participation activities, I frequently asked both directed and open-ended questions to the class at large and invited discussion. About 1/5 of the students regularly participated in class. One student even gave a guest presentation about his internship at Duke Energy. Several students who did not vocally participate in class posted links to articles and videos that related to course material. I was repeatedly impressed with what the students shared. Their insights will be incorporated into future course material.

Student feedback at the end of the course was rewarding. When asked what they would do with the knowledge they gained in my course, students listed various energy, water and resource saving techniques. Additionally, they expressed an interest in passing this information on to others: "We will share sustainable strategies with our friends, families and the new people we meet and instill a change in them". Based on my interactions with the students in my class, I believe that many of them will, indeed, follow through with these plans. Several students approached me about starting compost bins or using rain barrels at home and one student boldly declared to me that she had decided to become an ambassador for the Earth.

I am pleased with how this course went but I think that there is definitely room for improvement. For example, I would very much like to get students more involved with the local community. I would also like to include more variety in my class exercises. I am excited to share my experiences and to learn about additional teaching strategies from other workshop participants.