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Week of December 10, 2012

Students go beyond platitudes to examine sustainability

The freshman students in Ben van der Pluijm’s sustainability seminar are being pushed to go beyond “green is good” platitudes by performing thoughtful, detailed research on how societal actions can impact our future.

In the “Toward a Sustainable Human Future” seminar, students are encouraged to critically evaluate the societal impacts of actions toward sustainable practices. And the new Prezi information-sharing tool is helping them more effectively present their research and thoughts.

“What the students discover is that we can make predictions of the future; we can create scenarios based on what choices we make,” says van der Pluijm, director of the Global Change Program, Bruce R. Clark Collegiate Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and professor of the environment, Program in the Environment, LSA.

van der Pluijm developed the seminar after a year spent working at the National Science Foundation. He coordinated its new sustainability initiative and guided the development of several new interdisciplinary programs. “I wanted to capitalize from all I learned from colleagues in fields other than mine, to support this young generation in making decisions that my generation is failing to make,” he says.

For her class assignment, Morgan Kernohan, LSA freshman from Ovid, Mich., studied landfills, among other waste systems. “I researched that leachate, the excess liquid created by landfills, is very toxic to aquatic organisms if it leaked into underground water sources,” she says. Kernohan found that landfill liners have to contain the toxic liquid, transferred by pipes to a recovery center. She also learned that landfills can use methane that is naturally produced to create electricity for local buildings and facilities. “I thought this was very cool,” she says.

Student research is focused on project themes of fresh water, food, floods, fossil fuels, population, alternative energy, air pollution, health, waste, and weather, as they affect the 21st century. Students wrote vignettes on three to five of their favorites, and then were each assigned one theme to study. “I really want them to search for the critical information that is out there that will help them make decisions for our future,” van der Pluijm says.

Students are asked to analyze what they find at federal, non-government organizations and company websites, many of which provide authoritative sources of key information. “You have to start with knowledge and understanding before you make decisions,” van der Pluijm says. And rather than write a report or give a PowerPoint presentation, students are asked to create interactive Prezi presentations. Instead of presenting a traditional slideshow guided by forward and back arrows — as the traditional presentation offers — Prezi users can interact with the information by clicking on portions within each presentation that will lead them to more detail or allow multiple narratives.

“Prezis make the classroom presentation more lively, but, also, the posted version allows a user to be more personally engaged with the material,” van der Pluijm says.

Julia Bilotta, an LSA freshman from Mamaroneck, N.Y., says the seminar shows how societal actions to extract natural resources, including drilling, have changed the environment, and what is predicted for the world in the future. “But what is so hard in changing our behavior is that there are no definitive answers to any situation. Scientists can predict what may happen, but they are never completely certain; due to this, people make less of an effort to change because they don’t see any drastic results, and feel that it won’t affect their generation,” she says.

Marc Jacome, LSA freshman, says many sustainability issues must be resolved for the human species in the coming century. “Normally people associate sustainability with solely population growth or resource consumption, however, this class has shown that it concerns many other issues like health — obesity, disease — energy, preservation, waste and other things,” he says.

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