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.

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.


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.

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!

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.

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 (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.

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 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!

Paperless grading

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education focuses on one math faculty member’s rationale for and experience with paperless grading. This faculty uses a variety of applications to provide feedback to students, depending on the nature of the assignment and the format in which it was originally submitted, including MS Word (track changes/commenting), annotating pdfs and Jing (posting the short feedback videos to See also some comments by a different Math faculty member about her experiences with digital grading.