Incorporating sustainability concepts into a writing course

Lecturing Fellow Sandra Cooke, Thompson Writing Program, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Cooke’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Cooke and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

I thought it might be helpful to others (even those who teach classes in different disciplines) to share some of the methods I used to incorporate sustainability concepts into the content of my writing seminar course “Ocean Acidification.”  Ocean acidification (OA) is the process by which excessive amounts of CO2 – mainly produced by fossil fuel burning – dissolve into the world’s oceans and acidify the water.   This change in ocean chemistry can directly harm corals, mollusks (e.g., oysters), and other organisms that build shells or skeletons.  The cascading ecological consequences of these direct effects are only beginning to be understood, but the economic ramifications on important ecosystem services are likely (e.g., shellfisheries, salmon fisheries, ecotourism of coral reefs).

My course covered the scientific, economic, political, and societal aspects of OA, and given the nature of the topic, I figured that if my students understood the definition of sustainability, they could easily see the multiple ways in which OA compromises the sustainability of ocean ecosystem services and that OA’s solutions are rooted in the same solutions as climate change mitigation.

First, to introduce them to the concept of sustainability, I included a section on the syllabus entitled “Sustainability and Duke’s Curriculum.”  The section read as follows:

Duke University is committed to making sustainability a part of the curricular experience of all students.  Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, but we’ll elaborate on this brief definition in our class discussions!  As a “Sustainability Across the Curriculum” faculty fellow, I am committed to incorporating sustainability into the content and delivery of this course.  To that end, I’ll do my best to minimize paper use (e.g., most materials will be posted on the blog instead of distributing hard copies), minimize energy use (e.g., remind me to turn off the projector if we’re not using it!), and highlight connections between ocean acidification and sustainability in our discussions and course work.  For more information on Duke’s sustainability commitment visit this site.

Many of the students’ understanding of OA and sustainability was revealed by the topics they selected for their literature review writing assignment.  I had deliberately made the assignment prompt broad, telling students that their topic could be on any issue, as long as it was “tangentially related” to ocean acidification.  Student chose to focus on topics as diverse as solar energy, wind energy, carbon taxation, LEED building certification, coastal dead zones, innovative carbon sequestration techniques, and geoengineering approaches.  Such topics may sound overplayed, even when focusing on recent developments in these areas, but my students constructed novel, insightful claims that argued for the need to look beyond global warming to “the other CO2 problem” (as some scientists have dubbed OA) when evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of carbon reduction strategies.

Later in the semester, I asked the students to write a blog post on sustainability and OA.  Specifically, I asked them “how well do different audiences (public, scientists, policymakers, fisheries professionals, other stakeholders) recognize that OA compromises the sustainability of ocean ecosystem services? Are there ways that we could further this understanding and communication?” (the full prompt can be found here).  I told the students that they could think of this exercise as an example of “writing as a way of thinking” rather than a polished commentary.  Nevertheless, I was impressed with their thoughtful responses, especially this one and this one (others can be found here).

At the end of the semester – on the last day of class, in fact – I asked students to share their written definitions of sustainability using www.polleverywhere.com (thanks to those Trillium fellows who suggested this in our December meeting!).  I intended this to be an informal assessment of my efforts to incorporate sustainability concepts into the course.  That is, were these small efforts (the syllabus section, occasional mention during class discussions, open paper topic selection, and sustainability blog post) enough to ensure my students would leave the course with a basic understanding of the concept?  I asked them to share any type of definition, ranging from “pocket-sized” to “lengthy but thorough.”  I think these definitions (compiled here) indicate that most students did indeed come away with an understanding of sustainability.

Lastly, I wanted to share with you a survey project that one group of students developed for their final research project.  These students conducted a study they entitled “The psychology behind participation in sustainability efforts and the effect of extended knowledge on participation.”  They distributed this online survey to members of the Duke community and found that if survey responders “were more informed about the precise environmental effects of [various sustainability] actions, they would be more inclined to make these eco-friendly decisions a part of their everyday lives.”  I thought it was a neat study, especially for first-year students!  I encourage you to take their survey to see what their project was all about.

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