Theater, social change, and the many aspects of sustainability

I teach a class called “Performance and Social Change”, and it’s to this class that I brought ideas from the Trillium workshop. In the class we explore the body of theatrical techniques created by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. “Theatre of the Oppressed”, the umbrella term for these tools, help people to observe, reflect, and catalyze social change. Students in the course learn some of Boal’s techniques, then are challenged to share the techniques through workshops that they lead with members of our community partner organization.  This past year, our community partner was the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Students find this course very empowering. For some students, the process of going from student to workshop leader is a challenge, and it’s a major victory when they do it. The students support each other, and receive support and encouragement from workshop participants as well.

We talk a lot about structures of power, which we try to be very mindful of. Complex structures of power are embedded in Duke and Durham’s town/gown history and in the race and class backgrounds we all bring into the room. It is super important for the students to become conscious of structures of power and power dynamics so that they can act and respond to each other and community partners consciously.  I see lightbulbs go off for them as they make real connections and are inspired by incredible members of the community who are working to undo racism, sexism and classism in the Duke/Durham community. Hopefully this experience sustains them and motivates them to be agents of social change beyond the course.

The content of the course always engages with the idea of sustainability from a social justice perspective. A piece of that picture is economic sustainability.  For instance, the Durham Crisis Response Center serves women who are living with domestic violence, and if a woman has no means of supporting herself or her kids, it’s a piece of why she might stay with a violent partner. The Justice Theater Project, another community partner we’ve worked with, struggles to achieve their own financial sustainability as a small theater company. We have also worked with NC WARN, which advocates for sustainable energy and environmental justice.

This year’s syllabus framed three different ways that the course would work to be sustainable and address issues of sustainability:  self-sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. We start each class with yoga, breathing, and mindfulness practice. The content of the class, the theater techniques and the work with our community partners is all about social justice. Environmental sustainability is practiced through recycling, turning the lights out when the space is not in use, and in our food choices when we’re providing food for people. 

The lens of the Trillium workshop gave me a frame for thinking about and sharing with my student the above-mentioned aspects of sustainability.  Caring for ourselves, each other and our surroundings IS living in a sustainable manner.  Emphasizing sustainability in these ways on the syllabus helped legitimize those components of the class, underscoring their importance and making them more official. Thinking and talking about the personal and social as part of the big picture of sustainability helped me bring in the environmental piece to the class — asking students to make environmentally responsible choices became part of the class process.  Turning in all written assignments online was a shift for me to becoming as paperless as possible.  For the students, this was preferable!

Being part of the Trillium community and feeling like there is a community around sustainability at Duke has been great. It helps me feel less of a lone wolf. I have colleagues in the Dance Program who are rabid recyclers like myself, but now I’ve met others in this community across the university who I wouldn’t otherwise know. I think we need to use this community to generate a critical mass and move the crisis that we on planet Earth are facing into the mainstream of thought and action at Duke. The time is now!

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Engaging with complexity in environmental science

I came to Duke’s annual Trillium sustainability workshop as a graduate student interested in sustainability and teaching.  The workshop promised to combine the two and I was intrigued.  I was unsure whether the workshop was about teaching sustainably or teaching about sustainability (both, it turns out) and what sustainable teaching could mean other than avoiding printed handouts.  I came away with much more insight than I expected.

The workshop started with an exercise to investigate complexity.  We used lengths of twine to represent connections between different stakeholders in a complex environmental issue, stretching the twine between pictures of the stakeholders to create a physical map.  During this session, we focused on multiple competing uses of fisheries, but I later found that the exercise works equally well with many themes in sustainability.  We got out of our chairs and stretched the string across an entire wall.  The web of string quickly became tangled, which is precisely the point.  As teachers and professionals looking to address sustainability, we have to be able to thread all those connections between stakeholders in complex situations.  More importantly, we also have to teach students how to interpret these complex webs that abound in real-world environmental issues.

That theme of complexity and interconnectedness returned throughout the Trillium workshop, imparting a lasting lesson that has informed my teaching since.  During the workshop, I had the opportunity to talk to people from a variety of disciplines and learn about some of the challenges they faced in both the content and practice of their teaching.  Although our roles and our subject matter were different, our goal of expanding students’ awareness of sustainability was the same.  As a scientist, I found it useful to share experiences with teachers in the arts and humanities and learn how they are choosing to address environmental issues and sustainability in their courses.

The connections that I built with the broader sustainability community at Duke during the first Trillium workshop that I attended have continued to enrich my teaching over the ensuing years.  Being involved with the Trillium community has helped to keep me aware of the numerous events around campus related to sustainability.  I also developed valuable professional connections, one of which led to an opportunity to be a teaching assistant for an introductory environmental science course at Duke.

My experiences sharing ideas with other Trillium fellows informed how I decided to lead my sections for that environmental science course.  Going back to my first experience in the Trillium workshop of taping string to a wall, one of my teaching goals for the semester was to help my students gain the ability to evaluate the multiple interconnected relationships imbedded a complex environmental issue.  As such, that semester the students and I read and discussed Jon Moallem’s book Wild Ones.  This book is packed full of complex issues presently facing wildlife conservationists.  Should we devote resources to saving species whose habitat is likely to disappear as a result of human actions?  What do we do when species become “conservation reliant” and can no longer exist without human intervention?  Should we focus on saving particular charismatic species at all or should we focus on saving ecosystems?  Moallem presents these questions by taking a more in-depth look at species whose stories’ students have likely encountered before: the polar bear clinging to a melting Arctic, for example.

The book proved to be a fantastic avenue to explore a complexity within environmental science.  The book provides thought-provoking and discussion-generating questions, but there are few, if any, answers or value judgements.  That meant that we could spend the class sessions coming up with those solutions ourselves.  For example, Moallem describes a wildlife refuge which has struggled unsuccessfully for decades to preserve a critically endangered set of plants and insects.  The students worked on creating a revamped management plan for the refuge to address the issues described in the book, based on the existing budget for the refuge (which I found online).

One of my other teaching goals for the semester was to empower students to build of their understanding of complexity to develop solutions to environmental problems.  Studying environmental science and sustainability can be disheartening, especially for beginning students.  I remember the litany of destruction that I encountered in my first environmental science course in college years ago.  I want to move students past that point, to help them avoid becoming disillusioned or hopeless.  Staying in touch with other members of the Trillium community at Duke helps remind me that while we there are many challenges in environmental science and sustainability, there are also many opportunities to develop novel solutions.  One of the most exiting aspects of teaching about sustainability is that I get to watch a group of bright students come up with innovative new ideas every semester.

My graduate training is in ecology, a discipline which is focused on the connections between organisms and the environment they inhabit.  Ecology also teaches that no environment is static over the long term.  My involvement with Trillium has helped me to realize that these same insights apply equally well to many issues in sustainability.  To address any issue, just like understanding an ecosystem, we must first understand the relationships that drive that issue.  Moreover, like ecological systems, few environmental issues are static.  As technologies change, new opportunities (and challenges) arise.

The dynamism of studying and teaching about sustainability is one of the aspects that makes it so rewarding to me.  In hopes of passing on some of my enthusiasm for solving complex problems, I start the first class session of every semester with a ball of string, some scissors, and a big, empty wall.

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Inviting Others to Integrate Sustainability into Courses and Workplace

Denise K. Comer
Written March 2013
 
Denise Comer is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Writing and the Director of First-Year Writing at Duke University.
 

The Trillium workshop inspired me to think creatively about how I can have an impact on not only my own first-year writing class that I teach each semester, but on a broader level through my role as Director of First-Year Writing. In my own first-year writing courses, I have integrated sustainable practices: eliminating paper usage for workshops, course readings, and course handouts; minimizing usage of electronic resources during class time; and modeling for students personal efforts at sustainability through the use of reusable water containers. Of these, my commitment to not printing out course materials—syllabi, assignments, student papers that we workshop—has been the most rewarding because it saved not only paper, but my own time with preparing copies prior to class.

On a broader level, though, I initiated a conversation among the Thompson Writing Program’s staff and faculty about our unit’s environmental impact. We had a discussion and brainstorming session at our first faculty meeting in Fall 2012 (we have ~30 full-time faculty members and 3 full-time staff members). Our unit piloted a program with the Office of Sustainability: the Green Classroom Certification Program. Five of our faculty have earned this certification for their Spring 2013 Writing 101 courses: Benjamin Gatling, Lee Anne Reilly, Julie Tuttle, Brooke Wheeler, and me. Since most of our faculty teach multiple sections of Writing 101, this actually amounts to around 14 certified TWP courses during Spring 2013. For Fall 2013 we hope to increase the number of certified Writing 101 courses.

Another outcome of this TWP Green Initiative is that one of our staff members, Jennie Saia, Program Coordinator for the TWP, participated in a workshop outlining Green Workplace Certification. She has a number of excellent ideas, one of which involved converting to reusable water bottles with our unit’s logo. She recently won a Green Grant from the Office of Sustainability to purchase these water bottles for our TWP faculty and staff, and so we can provide them instead of water bottles at several key functions our unit hosts during the 2013-14 year with large attendance. We are also now forming a TWP Green Task Force to make a strategic plan for our unit to earn a Green Workplace Certification. This task force will unveil its plan at our August faculty retreat. Finally, my colleague Marcia Rego, Director of Faculty Development and Assessment in the TWP, co-facilitate a summer seminar in teaching writing each August, where we will also integrate conversations about sustainability in order for new first-year writing faculty to have the chance to think about their own course themes and strategies, and possible connections with sustainability.

Since Writing 101 is the only required course taken by all Duke undergraduates (Trinity and Pratt), we hold, in my opinion, a particular responsibility and opportunity to make a difference in student thinking about sustainability.

Another opportunity to move forward others’ thinking about sustainability arose through my work designing a MOOC in first-year writing (funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). I was delighted that Rebecca Vidra, of the Nicolas School, has agreed to be a disciplinary consultant for this MOOC. The course’s inquiry is on expertise, and through her consultancy, she will discuss her own scholarship around sustainability and provide examples throughout that draw on sustainability.

As the TWP moves forward to integrate a writing component to Duke in Kunshan (DKU), I will continue to consider how to bring forward Trillium concepts into this new global environment. My colleague, Vicki Russell, Director of the Writing Studio, and I will be traveling to China in May 2013 (funded by an ERIC grant), to learn more about writing pedagogy and needs in this context. We are in the process of developing syllabi for two possible writing-related courses in DKU, and I will work to thread practices in and themes about sustainability when possible.

Through initiatives such as these, where our programmatic work has the potential to inspire others (students, staff, faculty, broader publics, international scholars, etc.) to enact sustainability in their practices, I am optimistic that the reach of the Trillium Fellows’ workshop will be broad, meaningful, and various.

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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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