Sustainable material use in assistive devices (BME 460)

For the past 17 years, I’ve taught a class for seniors in biomedical engineering, where they design devices to assist people with disabilities (BME460). It’s a service-learning class and meets the students’ design requirement for the major. The students build projects for clients with disabilities in the local community and deliver them at the end of the semester.

I’m also a farmer, with a small sustainable farm that includes pick-your-own blueberries and blackberries and a custom-order CSA for a number of local families.  Over the years, I’ve wondered how to include sustainability in my class, but I hadn’t previously devised how to do it formally and in a way that wouldn’t be too much of a burden on the students. When I heard about the Trillium workshop, I decided to do it with the hope that I’d be inspired to find a way to add a dose of sustainability to BME 460.

This year, we had a guest lecture about sustainability, an assignment to research sustainability trade-offs of project materials, a focus on reusing or recycling materials in the lab, and some organized carpooling. I felt that the students’ general awareness of sustainability was heightened.

Early in the semester, before students had purchased many materials for their projects, Charlotte Clark came to the class and gave a lecture about sustainability. Charlotte and I asked the students to post information about sustainability tradeoffs between project materials they were considering, using Sakai’s wiki tool.  This was an ungraded assignment, and not surprisingly some students spent more time on it than others, so there were varying levels of commitment, input, and learning. I thought the assignment worked fairly well to get sustainability involved in the thought process of the class without making it too time consuming. (Many of these students already spend 200 hours or more working on their projects) We didn’t discuss this activity again in class, but some of my students afterward said that they liked the lecture and thought that the concept of life cycle design was interesting and important for engineers to consider.

In the lab, I asked the students to be mindful about what materials they used and what they threw out. Rather than automatically jumping in the car to go to Home Depot to get a chunk of wood, could they use something already in the lab? Maybe there’s some wood with holes that might not look as attractive but would work fine for an early prototype.  A couple of the teams mentioned to me choices that they made because they were trying to be more sustainable, especially spending more time looking for materials in the lab.

I originally considered having a trash-free lab, like the Eno River Festival’s trash-free focus, but I saw quickly that it was impractical. Instead, I asked them to be mindful about not throwing out recyclables. I’ve been surprised at how some of my engineering students don’t automatically recycle. I’d thought to have a board of shame and a board of praise: If I found something in the trash that could be in the recycling and I knew who put it there, they’d go up on the board of shame, and if they did something good they’d move over to the board of praise. I wanted it to be friendly, and it didn’t turn into a big thing, but I did have one person go up on the board of shame who quickly recovered to the board of praise. Overall, we had far fewer recyclables, especially paper, in the trash this year. During cleanup at the end of the semester, several students asked me whether different materials could be recycled, which hadn’t happened with previous classes. With some of the materials I was surprised that they didn’t know already what was recyclable and what wasn’t, but I was happy that they were thinking about it.

We went off campus a couple of times; in particular, at the end of the semester we went to Raleigh to give poster presentations at a conference. One of the students volunteered to create a Google doc for carpooling, and we saved some trips that way. I think it also got them thinking more about this aspect of sustainability.

I have a few thoughts for next year. I might make the wiki research assignment more structured, so that the end products are more equal in investment. My students keep a lab notebook, including documentation of their project work as well as other assignments, and I may have them reflect on their own research that went into the wiki as well as that of some of their peers’ entries. At the end of the semester, I may ask them to write about whether they made any different choices based on their awareness of sustainability. Related to recycling and material reuse in the lab, I may create a competition between groups, something to make it more fun and interesting.

My students also give presentations on engineering ethics, typically related to product development or medical research. (For example, what happens if a product is designed poorly and people get hurt? How will we respond to the myriad issues related to new genetic knowledge?) In the future, I may also allow them to discuss ethical issues related to sustainability, such as resource use and pollution in product design and manufacturing.

I’m glad that that there was a way to formally incorporate some ideas about materials and sustainability into BME 460, and that the Trillium program provided support to make it happen. The activities seemed to help the students understand how their choices as engineers can make a difference.  It was often straightforward to relate some choices about sustainability to their class projects; more importantly, I hope that they will take this awareness to their lives after graduation, regardless of their careers.

 

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Water Usage at Duke

For those that are interested – here is a quick fact sheet on Duke water usage. As we mentioned at the workshop, we are currently developing new targets and goals for additional conservation and efficiency. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or want to learn more – tavey.mcdaniel@duke.edu.

 

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Our Classrooms are Not Islands: Barriers to Voluntary Sustainability on Campus

Ph.D. student Shana Starobin, Nicholas School of the Environment, was one of seven Duke instructors who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Starobin’s thoughts during the Fellowship. Starobin and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty and other instructors 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.

Posted on the steel paper towel dispenser in a third floor ladies room near my office, I once found the following “helpful” note (apparently left by an anonymous student-do-gooder on all restroom dispensers in our department).

Brown paper towels are compostable!  If you used paper towels to dry your hands, please bring them downstairs and put them in the compost bin.  Thank you.”

This sign reminded me of why environmentalists often get a bad rap. Despite all good intentions, those deeply devoted to their cause often mistakenly assume that others not only share their same intrinsic motivations but also will blindly follow their initiative without question.

Let’s break down this sign:

The fact that “brown paper towels are compostable” may be important, new information for many people—even the “in-the-know” graduate students. Indeed, it seems illogical and even wasteful to dispose of a used-once, wet paper towel into a plastic trash bag destined for the landfill.  All the more so if Duke has to pay by weight for garbage disposal (they pay for the water in there too!)

Moreover, the sign implicitly suggests that I should reconsider my outrageous choice to use the paper towels to dry my hands in the first place.  The conditional statement “If you used” suggests that some people might not be drying their hands at all, or at least not with these paper towels.  Those who choose paper towels should, thus, feel ashamed and be judged accordingly.

If I did in fact choose to dry my hands with a paper towel—a choice unfortunate for the environment but recommended by public health advocates—this sign calmly recommends me to “…bring [the paper towels] downstairs and put them in the compost bin.”  I— like other colleagues similarly contemplating the meaning of this public sign—envisioned myself descending three flights of stairs, nobly carrying my damp, brown, paper towels in hand to deposit into said community compost bin (location unknown).

If we were to multiply out the number of collective employee and student hours lost to these individual, third-floor paper towel to compost-bin trips, I imagine university representatives—considering the opportunity cost of such valuable time—might descend upon the third-floor ladies room, tear this sign down as well as potentially remove the compost bin from the premises altogether.  There must be a better solution!

Better Solution: Engage Stakeholders and Reconfigure the Default Option

As illustrated in this case, devising appropriate institutional solutions to collective action challenges requires us to delve into the underlying motivations that incentivize human behavior in some directions over others.  The green evangelists—so committed to posting “informative” signs—neglected to evaluate the basic incentives that would likely be driving the next action of most average, rational individuals reading their sign, notably: an evaluation of the opportunity cost of the time associated with composting the paper towel versus simply throwing it in the trash (the standard, default option).

Even better than posting “informative” yet largely unhelpful, judgmental and off-putting signs, that same committed individual—so inspired to preach about the best solutions to our suboptimal waste-management choices—could have instead invested effort in more directly addressing our collective action challenges.

Barring investments in labor to pay staff to manage this system, those individuals who care most about the issue ought to be the first to take initiative for addressing the problem.  In this case, committed individuals might consider:

1) Engaging with other students and staff to discuss the problem and formulate possible solutions to further propose to administrators, staff and voluntary committees involved in building operations.

2) Negotiate with key stakeholders to make “composting” paper towels the default option (and some alternative vessel exclusively for non-paper-towel trash). This would enhance efficiency by making the desired behavior into an intuitive, easy, and lower-cost alternative. As evidenced in financial savings and other similar programs, behavioral changes are often easier to implement when they become the “default option” as opposed to a policy that requires behavior of individuals contrary to their natural inclinations.

3) Provide an alternative vessel in bathrooms to collect the paper towels (which by and large represent the majority of bathroom waste regardless).

4) Organize a group of volunteers and rotate responsibility for disposing full containers daily—thereby eliminating the private costs for each individual to inefficiently carry single paper towels down three flights of stairs.

5) Improve signage. This would include the actual location of the compost bin should community members like to find it, as well as removing judgmental language that might turn-off would-be participants in the first place.

Our Classrooms Are Not Islands

Our classrooms are not islands; they are embedded within our departments, programs, schools and, ultimately, a much larger university ecosystem. Inevitably, students and instructors advancing sustainability initiatives will, thus, need to also consider implications and constraints beyond the micro-level of the classroom.  There are inherent collective action challenges associated with creating shared environmental policies or programs among employees and students within a fairly large community (i.e., your department) within a much larger organization (i.e., Duke University).

In the above mentioned case, the ad hoc “paper towel composting program” and accompanying “information campaign” (notices on paper towel dispensers) was unilaterally implemented by the individual who appeared to have the greatest interest in creating such an initiative and for changing the status quo within our department from “No Composting” to “Composting.”

However, the lack of consultation with affected stakeholders (the other students, staff and employees) combined with a poor design (no bins, no plan for how to efficiently deliver paper towels from floor 3 to compost pile on floor 1) and insufficient and poor communication of relevant information all contribute to the failure of this “composting program” to take off and be implemented within the school.

This case points to the need for local policy creators (this could be YOU in your classroom or department) to take into account the knowledge, interest and experience of would-be policy followers.  If program creators better accounted for their stakeholders (and the fact that participating individuals might not be motivated for the same reasons or have the same information as the creators), they might better understand why individuals opt in or out of voluntary efforts and could pave the way for more effective and innovative grassroots sustainability initiatives on campus.

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Paperless Writing Course

Lecturing Fellow Michael Ennis, 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 Ennis’ teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Ennis 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.

As with many of the other Trillium Fellows, the most significant effort in making my class sustainable consisted of going paperless for my Fall 2011 first-year writing seminar.  Going into the semester, I had several apprehensions about doing this, some of which turned out to be no problem at all.  However, I do think certain activities were negatively impacted by the use of computers in the classroom.

My first concern was that students would find the paperless distribution of readings inconvenient and confusing, and that they would find reading pdfs on a laptop difficult, especially for highlighting and annotating.  As it turned out, I came up with a fairly streamlined system for course readings on Blackboard.  Under Course Documents I organized the readings into folders by day.  This enabled some flexibility in the reading schedule, which was quite nice.  Students knew they were responsible for reading whatever was in the folder, so I could switch them up from the syllabus to respond to questions and interests of the students.  I gave students the option to print the readings, or use their laptops in class.  Most chose the latter and claimed they preferred reading on the screen.  They claim that this did not present a hindrance to note taking, but I think that it did.  During in-class discussions, students who had printed copies seemed better able to navigate the essay and direct our attention to key passages.  This is, however, my impression, and I did not measure or test it.

While students preferred this method of distributing readings—in a survey they cited cutting textbook costs and preferring reading on a computer as key reasons—it did create some extra work for me.  There were a couple of texts that I would have liked students to read more of, but had to limit myself to a portion that remained within the bounds of fair use.  This required more prep in putting the course together: having one collection of readings makes constructing a syllabus much easier, and this method required piecing the readings together.   Overall, going paperless for the readings was a success, and I am continuing it this semester.

I did find going paperless for writing workshops more of a challenge.  Students did not mark up papers as much as we discussed them in class and were much less apt to point to specific passages in their peers’ writings.  I also felt students became more prone to surfing the web during these workshops, which is unacceptable in general, but particularly offensive when discussing another student’s work.  For that reason, this semester I have reverted to using paper for in-class writing workshops, but have requested that the presenters try to fit it on 1-2 sheets of paper.  So far, they have been much more focused and productive this semester.

I also graded on the computer.  I streamlined my commenting by using the clipboard function on Word.  By using the “Insert Comment” and “Track Changes” functions, I felt that my commenting on student writing was at least as comprehensive and less time consuming.

One concern many of my colleagues raised was preventing students from surfing the web during class discussions.  This was a bit of a problem, but I believe I minimized it simply by calling on students.  I did not do this to embarrass anyone, but just to establish early on that everyone needed to be paying attention and ready to contribute.  I also made sure to ask students to close their laptops when it wasn’t necessary to use them.  These measures worked fairly well, especially in the context of a 12-student seminar.  However, I am sure larger classes will still struggle with student surfing.

Overall, the experiment worked well, but in the future I may still use paper for writing workshops, and at some point again I will have students buy textbooks.  However, I will probably never print handouts, syllabi, and assignments again.

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From Paper Survey to Google Forms

Professor of the Practice Linda Franzoni, Mechanical Engineering, 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 Franzoni’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Franzoni 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.

For my “Introduction to Engineering” course, I rely on student surveys for two main purposes: assigning students to small groups for tours or meetings with faculty, and receiving feedback on class content. The course content feedback used to be turned in as a “feedback paper” at the beginning of the next class period, but in Fall 2011 instead of collecting paper from students, I used online surveys that were posted in Blackboard in the Assignments section, but were actually created in Google Forms.

I was introduced to Google Forms by a student in the class, who overheard me asking a colleague if he knew how to do the type of survey that I wanted to do, including collecting the data, sorting, etc. The student said that he knew how to do it and would send me a sample that I could edit. I was surprised at how easy the Google Forms tool was to use for creating surveys, and how seamlessly the data can be downloaded as an Excel file for post-processing.

Once I saw how easy it was to use Google Forms for feedback collection, I decided to use it to conduct the other type of survey, as well. The second type of survey traditionally involved numerous pieces of paper stapled together, describing small group experiences (a paragraph each), beside which were columns to check “most interested,” “very interested,” “somewhat interested,” or “not interested.” Once I collected these responses from the students, I then had to manually transfer the data to a spreadsheet in order to process the information and put students into groups for their assigned experience. Converting to the online survey not only saved paper, but also saved time.

Overall, eliminating paper feedback forms and paper surveys saved an estimated 1,000 sheets of paper for this one-semester class. The time savings was also much appreciated!

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Adding Sustainability Content to An Existing Course

Professor of the Practice Linda Franzoni, Mechanical Engineering, 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 Franzoni’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Franzoni 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.

In early Fall 2011 I met with Charlotte Clark (Faculty Director of Sustainability) to go over my syllabus for EGR 10 (Introduction to Engineering) which is a course designed to introduce freshmen to engineering and to help them differentiate between the four engineering majors that we offer at Duke.  As I went over the course content, Charlotte was able to help me see ways in which slight differences and/or additions to the course would make it possible to easily incorporate sustainability content into the course.

For example, the students take mini-field trips typically on or around campus to see examples of engineering that exist all around them.  Charlotte suggested adding the Duke Farm and the SONOCO recycling plant to the list of field trip options that the students could choose from (Duke’s Chilled Water Plant & new Steam Plant were already on the list).  Transportation was the only issue that needed to be resolved for the new additions, and that was easily handled with volunteer drivers.

Another class period  involved dissecting products and discussing the engineering decisions that go into the design process.  In the past, we had not considered the life-cycle analysis associated with the product being dissected.  Incorporating a life cycle analysis into this class made the students think more critically about those design decisions and how they affect sustainability.  We began the “product dissection class” with a guest lecture on the life-cycle analysis of orange juice by comparing the environmental cost of delivering the same quantity of orange juice to the customer by different methods:  whole oranges squeezed at home, lunchbox size boxed containers, wax carton (1/2 gallon-size), glass bottle, can of concentrate, etc.  After a lively discussion and debate over what is the most environmentally-friendly method of delivering orange juice to the customer, the students were more aware of the issues that need to be considered when designing a product, in general.  We then proceeded to dissect various brands and styles of cell phones.  In addition to the usual questions about electronic components, materials used and why, mechanical parts (flip phones, in particular), we added questions about how best to package / ship the cell phones, how to reuse/recycle/dispose of old cell phones (and batteries), and more generally are there better ways to design a more environmentally friendly cell phone.

These slight modifications to an existing course demonstrate how easily one can add sustainability content into a course whose primary learning objective is not sustainability.

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Advanced Spanish Writing: To print or not to print

Lecturer Melissa Simmermeyer, Romance Studies, 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 Simmermeyer’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Simmermeyer 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.

Though I resisted the idea of going entirely paperless, I was determined to reduce the amount of printing in the course, seeking in particular to eliminate printing that did not somehow support students’ acquisition/comprehension of the material or the language. Two “no-brainers” where I implemented this were the routine homework assignments (submitted as Word documents in Assignments in Blackboard) and the versions of the persuasive essay, the literary analysis, and the research paper that students submitted to me (as Word documents in File Exchange in Groups in Blackboard).

In the on-line survey I had students complete at the end of the semester, the consensus definitely was that none of them missed printing these items, that electronic submission was convenient since they had to compose them on the computer anyway, and that it was an easy and sensible way to cut back on paper, which was naturally a good idea.

In the past in Advanced Spanish Writing, and in other sections of the course, students wrote in-class essays longhand, on paper (of course!). I had the students in my section bring their laptops to the classroom and compose with the keyboard, and they turned it in as an assessment in Blackboard. Though I never really asked my students if they preferred typing to writing longhand, my impression is that they did, for several reasons. Many are more accustomed to typing than to writing as alleged “digital natives,” and composing in Word allowed them to avoid most of the obvious mistakes, since they could make use of the spell check and grammar check features.

With regard to grading the in-class essays, I hope to never have to go back to handwritten submissions. Some students’ handwriting is well-nigh illegible, and handling the papers electronically also permitted me to take advantage of various features of Word (word count, spell check, search). Though initially I worried that some students might arrive with texts already prepared and just draw them up and retouch them, my fears were soon allayed.

Some items that I still used in print form were the grammar quizzes (1 sheet two-sided, mostly fill-in-the-blank) and some in-class exercises that I wanted students to complete in pairs. Though I considered converting the grammar quizzes to electronic form, I did not think the payoff on less paper/printing would merit the amount of work involved, and I was also concerned about students’ accessing illicit sources during the quizzes. Regarding the in-class exercises, I remain convinced that two open laptops is generally a physical and psychological barrier to students’ collaborating, negotiating, and communicating naturally and effectively.

Though I did not really set any rules or guidelines regarding printing in other areas of the course, other than to encourage deliberate decision-making, based on my observations and on student reactions as revealed in the survey, I have learned some valuable take-away lessons. Except for one student, all survey respondents seemed to vastly prefer reading on paper. Most students reported finding real benefits from having the (brief) course readings (short stories and short essays) in print form. Because the texts are very dense and are not written in the students’ first language, they usually must read them several times, they read them more slowly (eye fatigue), they must look up more words (potential for losing their place), and underlining, highlighting, and annotating are strategies that aid their comprehension and that are still cumbersome in electronic venues. The kind of reading they do for the course and the expectations of the degree of comprehension of very difficult material in a second language seem to me to warrant double-sided printing (and subsequent recycling).

Most students also said they preferred to print out their peers’ essays for peer feedback sessions, citing for example, “[I should have] print[ed] out my peers’ essays and mark[ed] them up with a pen – I feel I would have been a more helpful reader if I had done this…” From this experience I conclude that there is still a generalized need for print copies of challenging readings (that require active learning on the part of the student) in the advanced second-language classroom and dorm room. First-language headlines and brief pieces are great to read online, but in the second-language classroom there are readings and then there are readings.

I feel that marking up students’ papers and commenting/giving feedback on the content was much more difficult for me in Word than it had ever been in print form. It also slowed me down. This is an area where I would like to continue to improve. I know I can learn to be more efficient.

Finally, last semester (Fall 2011) I continued to print a lot of the grade sheets (rubrics) for the students since we were using Blackboard and a separate grading program, but this semester I am happy to report that we in Advanced Spanish Writing are using the Gradebook in Sakai, which makes it easy to give detailed comments on the results of the student’s assignment along with the numerical score for the assignment. This means that we really don’t need print forms of all those rubrics. In this case printing really doesn’t support student learning better than online viewing does.

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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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My experience teaching a paperless 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.

In the Fall 2011 semester I taught three sections of my first year writing seminar course “Ocean Acidification.”  As I reflected on the sustainability of my teaching practices during my six semesters at Duke, I realized that writing courses consume A LOT of paper – and I say this as someone who from the beginning has been paperless when it comes to submitting work, giving feedback, and grading.  But the handouts, readings, and especially drafts for class workshops resulted in my use of nearly 100 sheets of paper per student (24-36 students per semester), according to my rough estimate, even with double-sided printing.  Although I felt I had made some progress in gradually reducing this number each semester, my primary objective this semester was to eliminate ALL paper usage in order to improve the sustainability of my course delivery.  While this would involve substantially more in-class laptop usage, I figured that the energy and time saved by reduced printing and photocopying would be worth it.  A secondary objective was to be more mindful of and reduce energy usage in the classroom by turning off lights, projectors, and computers when not needed.

Two of the key paperless methods I had used in the past were (1) e-mail submission of papers and returning of grades (which would probably be too tedious for a larger class, in which case Blackboard or Sakai could be used); and (2) the “insert comment” function in Microsoft Word to give feedback, as well as typing a note to the student at the head of the paper.  I understand that some instructors may not be accustomed to these methods and would find the transition to these practices to be difficult.  As an early-career instructor, I think these practices were easy for me to adopt because I had not yet established my methods for teaching writing when I came to Duke a few years ago.  But I soon discovered additional advantages to these methods that serve as great time-savers for those of us who assign (and therefore respond to) a lot of writing!  For example, I frequently use the “compare documents” function in Word so that I can compare a student’s previous draft to the revised version and quickly see the changes they have made.  This has proved quite useful in conversations with students regarding how substantive their revisions are!  I also use the “find” feature:  for example, if a student discusses a new term or source near the end of their paper and I can’t remember if they properly introduced it earlier, I can use “find” to quickly search for that reference or key word.  Grading a Word document instead of a paper version is also nice for quickly assessing things like word count, paragraph count, and spelling or grammatical errors.

So, by using these previous paperless methods and increasing laptop usage, I succeeded in nearly eliminated all paper usage (I could not resist distributing hard copies of the syllabus on the first day and a half-page sized student information sheet).  My main concern was that using laptops instead of hard copies of student writing during seminar workshops (when the entire class reviews and discusses one piece of writing) might distract the students from the task at hand.  But distraction was apparently not a problem, as student participation during the workshops was as high as for paper workshops.  A second concern I had was that the students would find a paperless course inconvenient and would print most of the readings and other course materials so that they could highlight or annotate their hard copies.  I did not ask students to avoid printing course materials, and I did notice that some students printed a few things, but overall it appeared that students used most of the course materials electronically.

After our Trillium Sustainability Fellows meeting in December, I was inspired to play around with www.polleverywhere.com as a fun, informal way to assess my students’ perspectives on whether the course was taught in a sustainable manner.  I framed questions about paper usage and energy usage in terms of how these compared to the students’ other classes.  93% of the students perceived that paper usage in this course was less than paper usage in their other courses.  When asked if they thought this course used less energy than their other classes, 32% replied “yes,” 25% “no,” and 43% were “not sure.”  This semester I’ll think more carefully about strategies to reduce energy usage or at least get the students (and myself!) thinking more deliberately about energy usage in the classroom.

Overall, things worked well enough that I plan to go paperless in future semesters.  I was pleased with some unanticipated benefits of paperless teaching, including reduced prep time (no fussing with the photocopier) and improved organization (no piles of papers spread around my office at the end of the semester!).  I’d certainly welcome any questions or suggestions from other professors and instructors!

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Teaching Idea

When discussing sustainability  it is interesting to acquaint students with various methodologies for evaluating organizations’ efforts. You can use the Lowell Sustainable Production Methodology or a Life-Cycle Framework (looking at sustainability from raw materials through to the end of use by the consumer).  You can take any company and have students analyze its efforts through either of these frameworks (I have used Nike, BP, and Nordstroms) because they are all from different industries and operate very differently. Nordstroms, for example, is at the end of a long value chain whereas BP is involved in both upstream and downstream activity.  After they have investigated these companies, I ask them to tell me what they would have liked to have seen on their websites to make their sustainable activities more transparent and understandable to consumers.

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