May 2012 Archways

On Course: Sustainability: The 360° Perspective

An innovative curriculum gives Bryn Mawr students the chance to study the issues of sustainability and put what they’ve learned to work.

By Alicia Bessette

Illustration by Jason Marz

Illustration by Jason Marz

Math and economics double major Xue Jiang ’13 wouldn’t have guessed that, as an undergraduate, she’d be working alongside professional architects to educate Haverford residents about energy consumption. But Jiang did just that, as part of a new cluster of courses offered this past spring called 360° Perspectives on Sustainability. She and her classmates learned about the problems that face urban and natural environments and they provided solutions, too.

The cluster is part of the 360° program, an interdisciplinary experience that gives Bryn Mawr students the opportunity to investigate a topic or theme from a multitude of perspectives. And, as Professor of Mathematics Victor Donnay explains, sustainability is a perfect 360° subject because it must be studied from multiple perspectives.

“You can’t make progress in sustainability issues from a narrow focus,” he says. “In fact, employing a narrow focus might even make the problems worse because any solution that is purely technical does not take into account the human element.”

The 16 students in 360° Sustainability took three courses simultaneously: Donnay’s Math and Sustainability; Educating for Ecological Literacy, taught by Senior Lecturer in Education Jody Cohen; and Building Green: Sustainable Design Past and Present, taught by Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities Carola Hein. Donnay says the collective goal of the courses is for students not simply to learn about the issue of sustainability but to put that knowledge to work as well.

One of Donnay’s math assignments, for example, required students to examine energy consumption in the dorms. Each student chose a particular appliance—cell phone, washing machine, laptop, and so on—and then measured the amount of carbon dioxide it generates, plus the expense of running it. The resulting analyses were posted online, enabling students across the College to understand the implications of choices like installing a mini-fridge in their room.

Field placements, or Praxis assignments, provided all the 360° students with the opportunity for action-based learning. At Haverford Reserve, where a LEED-certified building is under construction, students designed informational material, such as tips on eco-friendly construction, for touch-screen kiosks. Two other Praxis partners, Parkway West High School and Folk Arts–Cultural Treasures Charter School, involved the 360° Sustainability students in the design and teaching of a curriculum on urban gardens. And a fourth Praxis partner, Bryn Mawr’s own Facilities Services, worked with the students on orienting staff, administration, faculty, and other students to the College’s Climate Action Plan, which commits the College to reducing its carbon footprint 10 percent by 2020.

“The Praxis partners had specific needs we were able to meet, so the students actually did real-world work,” Cohen says.

Illustration by Jason Marz

Illustration by Jason Marz

The Sustainability 360° also engaged students with perspectives from beyond the College. A guest lecture by Hepburn Fellow Karen Stephenson, famed social network pioneer and corporate anthropologist, inspired many students to ask how social networks can address sustainability challenges. And, in a week-long workshop called “Design Challenge 2012: What a Waste?,” German architect Korinna Thielen pushed students to explore their own patterns of consumption and propose sustainable alternatives like biking trails and paper-recycling stations.

Field trips to destinations such as the Fairmount Waterworks in Philadelphia invited students to reflect on what sustainability means in various dimensions. A tour of Harriton House, a restored 1704 home built from stones found just 50 yards away, served as proof positive that the 20th-century didn’t invent sustainable architecture.

For Cohen, one welcome by-product of the 360° approach to studying sustainability is classroom dialogue that was among the richest she has ever led. Observations posted to the class blog often inspired lively, in-person discussions, including one spirited debate on how religious studies can inform ecological literacy. Another result was a team-oriented, cooperative classroom ethos. Analytically minded students helped those who suffered “math anxiety,” while the avid readers helped students like Jiang, who reports a marked improvement in her reading skills thanks to study tips from Cities majors in
the class.

“You can really see students’ enthusiasm and how it propels them to explore—to throw themselves into a topic and do research beyond what we teach,” Hein says. “There’s real excitement in their eyes. They’re well anchored in their disciplines, but they’re employing an interdisciplinary approach, and that’s very forward-acting.”

Illustration by Jason Marz

Illustration by Jason Marz

Growth and Structure of Cities major Tess Pula ’14, who took the class to deepen her understanding of modern design and green architecture, says the class has transformed her world view. For her, the diversity of student backgrounds created a “productive and provocative” classroom experience that strengthened her belief in what she personally might contribute toward a more sustainable world.

“We must value our own traditions and input, as well as those of others,” Pula says. “We all have a part in this journey.”


Waste Not

As part of her week-long workshop “Design Challenge 2012: What a Waste?,” guest lecturer Korinna Thielen asked 360° Perspectives on Sustainability students to apply design thinking to their consumption patterns and to develop solutions to everyday sustainability issues at the College.

Described below is a selection of proposals for projects that Professor Carola Hein says “can realistically be implemented in a community action that would make Bryn Mawr more livable as well as sustainable.”

Isel Otero-Vera ’12 and Lee McClenon ’14 argue that the “valley of death,” the area that separates Cambrian Row from the rest of campus, wastes campus space and distances students from the programs housed on the Row. They propose employing landscaping, furniture, and public art, such as murals, to transform it into an arena for student social activity.

Emma Wippermann ’13 and Samantha Shain (Haverford ’14) propose the “Bi-Co Bike Collective” as a sustainable alternative to the Blue Bus and cars. This student group would create “guerilla” bike routes through the suburbs and organize group rides, a bike-share program, and bike safety and maintenance tutorials.

Ning Pei ’13 and Xue Jiang ’13 developed the idea for “green stations” to facilitate creative, low-tech recycling. Located strategically in dorms and common areas, these stations would serve as a depository for single-sided paper and provide inexpensive craft tools to allow students to create salvaged paper products like notebooks and stationery.

Learn more about sustainability at Bryn Mawr.