Sustainability & Dependency: Revamping a Graduate-level Forestry Course

by Nicolette Cagle

I am an ecologist and I am an environmentalist, but the concept of sustainability had always bothered me. Colleagues had presented sustainability as a Venn diagram with three partially overlapping circles: environment, society, and economy. The Venn diagram suggested that parts of the society or economy could be removed from the matrix of the environment. This conceptualization seemed ludicrous: Without the environment, we have no society and we have no economy.

Venn diagram representation of sustainability (Moir & Carter, 2012)


Despite my reservations about the concept of sustainability as overlapping circles, I strongly support linking the environment, society, and economy in pedagogy. I wanted to learn how to do so more completely in my graduate-level course, Forest Measurements. The Trillium Workshop, which I attended in January 2016, taught me how.

Nested representation of sustainability (Moir & Carter, 2012)

The Trillium Workshop provided a possible framework for sustainability that I could champion: nestedness. In this model, the circle of Economy is nested within the circle of Society, which is nested within the circle of the Environment. The nested model, presented by Bob Doppett in The Power of Sustainable Thinking and Peter Senge and others in The Necessary Revolution, accounts for our dependence on the environment and, thus, it has also been called the “3-nested-dependencies-model.”


Working with the facilitators of the Trillium workshop, I identified aspects of my forestry course that already exemplified the nested model of sustainability. For example, I devote a large portion of the course to woody plant identification, but when I present these plants, I never focus solely on their ecology or biological characteristics. Instead, I consciously describe the relationship of these plants to society (e.g., medicine) and economy (e.g., economic value and uses).

While sustainability was already present in my Forest Measurements course, I have integrated it more fully into the course philosophy, lectures, and assignments. Inspiration from Richard Louv, the noted nature advocate, is part of my course philosophy: “Natural history is as important as human history to our regional and personal identities.” In addition, students are now expected to “identify the environmental, social, and economic effects of forest management practices” to successfully complete the course; this new key learning objective emphasizes sustainability. Four classroom activities are explicitly devoted to sustainable forestry, including a discussion of conceptualization of sustainability, a class period on sustainable forestry and the Duke Forest story, a land tenure field trip, and a guest lecture on Sustainable Forestry certification. With feedback from Sara Childs, director of the Duke Forest and Trillium fellow, I added assignments on land tenure and a reflection on sustainable forestry, using the Duke Forest as a model.

Overall, my experience with the Trillium Fellowship provided me with a springboard for making my implicit aim of sustainability education more explicit in the classroom. The workshop also provided me with a new conceptualization of sustainability, resources, activity ideas, and a cohort with which to discuss sustainability and pedagogy.


Moir, S. & Carter, K. (2012). Diagrammatic Representations of Sustainability – a Review and Synthesis. In S. D. Smith (Ed.), Proceedings 28th Annual ARCOM Conference, 3-5 September 2012, Edinburgh, UK. (pp. 1479–89). Edinburgh: ARCOM (Association of Researchers in Construction Management.

Bringing Sustainability to the Chemistry Classroom

Chemistry naturally lends itself to discussions about sustainability, which has woven itself into the fabric of my career. In graduate school I found interesting work using surfactants in carbon dioxide, and this work led to being on a team that won the national Presidential Green Challenge Award in 1997. My postdoctoral work was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through its Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes. During my time working in industry, we were often tasked with reducing waste and increasing efficiency though development of products.

Now, as a faculty member, I find myself engaged in the teaching and learning of eco-friendly concepts and activities in a community of colleagues and students. When I began teaching the Chemistry, Technology, and Society class at Duke University in 2013, I knew that I would learn much more about the environmental impacts of my discipline. What surprised me most was how much my students taught me about the economic and social elements of sustainability.

The first week of the semester, though we had not covered any actual chemistry yet, we completed a process oriented guided inquiry learning exercise focused on a discussion of sustainability. The focus on opportunities for either benefit or harm related to the discipline set a stage that put future learning in context.

The activity we completed in class, What is Sustainability and What Does Chemistry Have to do with it?, was created and generously shared by my colleague Prof. Katherine Aubrecht, who teaches in the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University. Students read published definitions from the Brundtland Report and thoughts on the meaning of sustainability from Eric Zencey’s “Theses on Sustainability.” The student groups also brainstormed changes in human behaviors or technological developments that they thought could decrease the negative environmental effects of human activity. As a class, we made a class list of their ideas, which included many ideas from a public policy and/or economic perspective.

In this moment, I began to fully realize the rich resource the class would provide for my own learning and enlightenment. This natural science general education course provided a tremendous learning advantage: The student-centered discussion format and the diversity of the student ages and choices of majors provided perspectives on sustainability through the lenses of different disciplines. Seniors majoring in economics or religious studies shared viewpoints that one doesn’t frequently encounter in large service lectures to organic chemistry classrooms populated by eighty percent pre-medical students.

Sustainability became a framework around which the majority of the topics in the course were discussed. Mundane processes, such as becoming proficient at the task of balancing chemical equations and calculation of product yields, came to life as we examined examples of the pollutants caused by incomplete gasoline combustion. In another chapter, the challenge of organic chemical synthesis of new medicines segued into enlightening readings on the global health impact of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The unit on polymerization led to a particularly lively discussion about the best waste management strategies for man-made plastics.

After attending the Trillium faculty workshop in 2015, I became more intentional in thinking about sustainability components in other courses I teach. In Organic Chemistry, students learn multiple synthetic methods. Invariably, some students want me to tell them definitively which method should be used to make a certain functional group (or, in some cases, they are searching for which route I want them to use to earn maximum points on a test while minimizing the number of reactions remembered). When multiple synthetic methods can result in the same organic product, students must consider which one is “the best”? While it is always tempting to say simply that the reaction with the highest yield of the desired product is the best­­­–and that is often the case–in the real world other factors are also taken into consideration. Scientists and engineers must consider the reactivity and sensitivity of other parts of the molecule, stereochemistry, types of solvents used, amount and type of waste involved, safety concerns such as health hazards of the chemicals used, amount of time and energy needed for the reaction and purification steps, ability to implement recycling, and other process considerations. Ultimately, the decision about which route is “the best” for a particular synthesis very often comes down to a combination of sustainability factors.

In the next academic year, I plan to write some learning objectives more directly relating to these important factors in the unit plans for my Organic Chemistry classes. I thank the Trillium program for encouraging me in that direction.

Japanese Architecture and Sustainability

I often discuss sustainable design with my husband, who is a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified architect–how he incorporates everything from harvesting daylight to green roofs to featuring prominent screens with energy consumption data in his current projects. Despite my ongoing personal interest in sustainability issues, however, I had never pursued them in a systematic manner nor had I really considered incorporating them into my teaching on Japanese art history and visual culture. When I received the Trillium sustainability workshop announcement a (LED) light bulb suddenly went off. I could use this opportunity as a springboard to learn about the state of sustainability studies from an academic standpoint while getting hands-on advice about how to incorporate these critical issues into my teaching. I joined the Trillium sustainability workshop to revamp and enhance my regularly offered course “Japanese Architecture.” My objective was to learn new and innovative ways to address the 21st century concerns of urbanization, sustainability, and environmental design related to building in a “disaster nation,” particularly focusing on issues in the post-Fukushima context.

“Japanese Architecture” is a survey of the major architectural traditions of Japan. Architectural sites discussed range from prehistoric tombs and dwellings up through the innovative and sustainable contemporary design work of world-renowned Japanese architects such as Isozaki Arata, Ando Tadao, and recent Pritzker prizewinner Ban Shigeru. While the course is organized chronologically, individual sessions focus on the development of various architectural typologies over time, including Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, tea ceremony structures, garden design, imperial and shogunal palaces, fortified castles, modern institutional structures, and private residences. Japanese architectural practices are considered in comparison with other Asian and Euro-American building traditions. In addition to focusing on the aesthetic and structural issues related to various Japanese architectural monuments, we also examine the historical, social, religious, and environmental contexts of their construction and use.

My experience at the Trillium workshop in January has inspired a number of enhancements to the course, which will be implemented in three main areas. I plan to dedicate a full session to the theme of sustainability in which students will read a general theoretical introduction by Leslie Paul Thiele in conjunction with work by Azby Brown on Japan’s long history of sustainable practices in building material use (“The Sustainable City: The Carpenter of Edo,” in Just Enough, Tokyo, Kodansha, 2009). This will tie into earlier discussions in the course about Shinto architecture and the sacred harvesting of wood materials in the context of an animistic local culture. It will also span up to the contemporary green design work of prominent firm Nikken Sekkei. In addition, discussions about sustainability will feature prominently in course sessions on the urban development of Edo-Tokyo and the dramatic transformation of the city’s waterways. Using the important work of urban historian, Jinnai Hidenobu (“The Cosmology of a City of Water,” in Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), the class will consider how Edo reengineered its waterways and Tokyo lost them to expedient development for transportation infrastructure in the frantic race to prepare for the 1964 summer Olympics. We will discuss arguments for reestablishing Tokyo as the “Venice of the East” and movements to reclaim and re-naturalize its canals and harbors. Other sessions will broach questions of sustainable design as a result of economic necessity and critical social equity issues related to equality of access to environmental design. The course will conclude with a timely discussion of architectural design and environmental issues in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake of 1995 and the mega disaster of 2011, when the northern Tohoku region of the archipelago was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I am looking forward to teaching this new, enhanced version of the course in Fall 2015.

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!

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.