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Monday, September 23, 2019

More Classes are Exploring Sustainability

WCC students are increasingly considering the issue of sustainability, as a growing number of instructors across disciplines are bringing this important topic into their classrooms.

Sustainability is often broadly defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It’s a topic that fits into discussions of biological systems, energy usage, business practices, political and economic strategies, social practices, creative expression, and more.

In 2007 WCC joined the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which makes integrating sustainability into the curriculum one of its goals. And in February 2010, a group of about 30 WCC instructors from various disciplines met for a workshop devoted to bringing the topic of sustainability into the classroom.

"It's more of a natural fit in some classes than in others, but part of our job should be to help our students to make the connections," said electricity/electronics instructor Dale Petty, who helped organize the workshop. “I would like to see all of our students, from automotive technicians and business majors to musicians and biology majors, understand how people, planet, and profits are all connected.

“In my classes we tend to look at practical applications. I introduce alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power in the context of teaching about electrical units and wattage. Or I discuss the efficiencies of electric motors in my HVAC course.

"It's easy for me," Petty said. “My students always have lots of questions when I bring out the pictures of the solar panels on my home. And in my motors class they really enjoy the YouTube video I show of the world's fastest electric motorcycle."

When the discussion turns to more controversial topics such as global warming or energy policies, Petty recognizes that instructors sometimes have to strike a delicate balance. "It's important to respect other points of view and to not impose values, but there is a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “My objective is to have students consider the facts. As an educational institution, it's our job to sort it out."

Biology Students Study Global Warming

Of course, sustainability is a natural and expected part of any general biology class. But instructor David Wooten has recently added a more in-depth look at the issue of global warming to the ecology section of his class.

“In the study of biology, whether we’re looking at plants, animals, soils, habitats, or whatever, we soon recognize that each part depends on the other,” said Wooten. “Everything is integrated and interdependent.

“As the naturalist John Muir said, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’”

Students in Wooten’s anatomy/physiology class discover that sustainability applies to discussions of diet and health through topics such as organic food and meat consumption. And it’s become a regular part of Wooten’s field biology class to spend a day cleaning up trash in the natural area of the WCC campus. “Last fall students collected over 145 pounds of trash,” he said. “They were shocked but also inspired. They enjoyed competing to find the most stuff, and we cleaned up everything from bowling balls to car parts to a toilet dumped in the woods.”

Sustainability Isn’t Just for Science Classes

But how does sustainability fit into a class in business communications, songwriting, or English?

In Maurice Stovall’s business communications class, sustainability is one of the real-life topics his students can choose to explore for their final project. “I originally got the idea from another business instructor, but my students liked it so much that it’s now a regular part of the class,” he said. While the topics vary, more than one group has focused on sustainability issues, including cutting energy costs on campus and improving the campus parking problem. “Once my students got involved in looking for energy-reducing and cost-cutting solutions on campus, they got really excited about it,” Stovall said.

Stovall requires that students talk to administrators and decision makers for the project, and they’ve been surprised at the effect they can have. “When some of their suggestions were implemented, the students felt that they had a real impact on decisions and were a real part of the campus,” said Stovall.

Music instructor Michael Naylor thinks it’s natural to include sustainability in his music appreciation class, where students explore the music of many cultures.

“Music is a window for all of a culture’s values and lifestyle,” he said. “We often talk about how any culture’s history influences how they spend their time and resources, or what they consider to be ‘successful’ or ‘important.’ One way to consider our current global dilemma is to talk about how it evolved out of our American culture’s history and the values we’ve propagated over time.”

In songwriting class or music theory class, those insights become creative expressions complete with melodies and lyrics. Several students from Naylor’s class, as well as the music theory and songwriting classes of Steven DeDoes, Carlos Palomares, and Spencer Michaud, created and performed original compositions at the Ann Arbor Earth Day held on the WCC campus April 25. “Artists are often at the forefront of change—great inspiration can come out of the injustices we perceive and the issues that matter to us,” Naylor said.

Earth Day brought out the talents of a number of other students, too, with projects from biology and chemistry students, posters created by graphic design and photography students, and a poetry chap book, “Words for the Earth,” created by WCC’s poetry club.

English instructor Tom Zimmerman, the club’s advisor, said the topic has also found its way into the English department’s basic writing and composition curriculum as one of the research assignments. “We want to encourage students to think about sustainability,” he said. “It’s a topic that has a great deal of impact on our worldview and how we live. It’s important to have an awareness of how small choices can add up to a big effect.”

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