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How to Use the Campus as a Living Laboratory?

  1. Find Projects that are Appropriate to the Class
  2. Find Resources and People
  3. Contribute Back
  4. Assess Student Projects
  5. Maintain a Record

Find Projects that are Appropriate to the Class

Consider the campus links to the coursework you are teaching:

  • All campuses have a geoscience context in the form of local geology (rivers, wetlands, landforms, bedrock geology), rainfall, building materials, disturbance of the land, and effect of urbanization on the biosphere. For example:
    • Carleton College geology students routinely study the channels of the Cannon River and Spring Creek, which are on or next to campus. After a severe storm in 1998, geology students assessed storm damage and presented their recommendations to campus facilities management.
    • At the University of Minnesota, students were involved in the restoration of a campus wetland, the Sarita Wetland. Out of this project grew the University of Minnesota Sustainable Campus Initiative, an ad hoc committee that worked to use the campus as a teaching tool. The landcare staff and University of Minnesota faculty now routinely collaborate on stormwater initiatives on campus.
    • For additional examples of campus wetlands, see Campus Watershed Projects.
    • Building stones is a lab about to building stones in a downtown area, but could easily be adapted to the campus.
    • Weiss and Walters (2004) developed a campus geology walking tour that provided students with experience of using hand-held GPS receivers and examining a variety of campus geologic features and specimens in campus building stones, monuments, and rock gardens.
    • Carleton College's campus weather station data has been used in geology and environmental studies courses, in independent research projects, as well as by local K-12 teachers in Northfield.
    • Use the Campus Nitrogen Budget to Teach about the Nitrogen Cycle (Savanick and Perry, 2006)
    • More Campus Geoscience Lab Ideas lists numerous field labs that can be adapted to the campus context.
  • The workings of a college or university also provide fertile ground for campus-based geoscience and sustainability teaching. For example:
    • Oberlin College's Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is a building that was designed as a teaching tool. The building includes an on-site living machine to treat wastewater, as well as numerous "green building" strategies.
    • Campus sources of greenhouse gases include exhaust emissions from campus cars and buses as well as from energy production for the electricity used on campus. These activies could be used in a study about global warming. For example, see Campus Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory
    • In addition, colleges and universities use a significant amount of water. Students could research where the water comes from, how much is used and where it goes when it leaves the college. For an example student project, see Spak (2002), Assessing the Ecological Footprint of The University of Minnesota's Twin Cities Campuses: Water Usage This research could be included in a geology class that involves ground water.
    • Campus wells are a valuable source of field laboratory sites and ground water data. The University of Minnesota facilities management drilled additional well monitoring stations around the Sarita Wetland area that were used by geology classes.

Find Resources and People

Students, staff and faculty in most institutions often work in different spheres.

As one University of Minnesota faculty member mentioned at a University of Minnesota staff and faculty meeting about a campus wetland restoration, "The faculty and students often see the staff as part of the furniture; the staff often sees the faculty and students the same way." Bridging this divide is crucial for campus-based projects.
By utilizing facilities personnel wisely, the students can benefit from a hands-on, real-world project; facilities management may also utilize some research and creative thinking about campus environmental issues.

  • On a small project, simply have the students contact and interview staff who have knowledge in the area. Faculty can also have facilities management personnel come to class to present about topic areas and answer questions.
  • On a larger project, set up an environmental committee with students, staff and faculty to advise projects. For an example see Carleton College's Environmental Advisory Committee
  • Prepare students: Students may need to be reminded about how to interview staff efficiently. Providing a reminder about interview techniques may be useful for students. For more information about interview techniques, see McDowell 1999 and United States General Account Office 2001. One common mistake by students is to wait until the last minute to ask for detailed information needed in a short time frame. Make sure that that students can ask for specific information with enough lead time for the staff to get the information for them.
  • Prepare staff: Most staff are pleased that students have taken an interest in their work. However, some staff may be uncomfortable offering data to students. If staff know how the information will be used, they often will be more likely to be receptive to sharing information. Faculty can talk to facilities management supervisors about the project and/or write up a short piece about the project for the students to add in an email request for information to help with this type of communication.

Contribute Back: Present Information to the Community

  • Have students researchers present information to campus decision-makers, as well as produce a written report or website. One useful part of a campus-based project is a ready-made group of potential reviewers. Campus staff may be willing to review presentations and potentially implement student recommendations.
    • All written campus projects should also include a distilled executive summary that can be used by campus decision makers.

Assess Student Projects: Faculty Resources for Assessing Campus-Based Projects

Maintain a Record: Archive Student Projects

A common problem at most schools is that student projects are lost at the end of a semester. If a department or program archives the student projects, then a subsequent group of students interested in the same topic can build upon the previous student's work. 

Tips for an effective archive:

  • Designate a faculty or staff person as the repository for student projects. Keep a copy of the projects with this person.
  • Set up a permanent file in the reserve reading section of the library.
  • Set up a section for student projects on an campus environmental program's website. Make sure that you have permission from the students to put their information on the website. Have students provide an electronic copy of their work to upload.
  • Have students hand in three hard copies of their papers and a disk with the electronic version. One copy will be returned with a grade and comments. One copy stays in the campus research archive and one is placed on reserve in the library. The electronic version can be easily uplinked to a website.