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Sustainability works its way into curriculum

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Sustainability works its way into curriculum

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April 20, 2014

It's more than just a plastic fork.

In the middle of an ocean of one-use items, forgoing a plastic fork doesn't seem like it would have much of an impact. But after taking Introduction to Environmental Health Science-EHSC 3060 in the UGA Bulletin-Anne Marie Zimeri's students no longer look at the disposable utensil the same way.

"I think sometimes people think what they do doesn't make a difference," said Zimeri, who is an assistant professor and undergraduate coordinator in the College of Public Health. "They'll say it's just one plastic fork. But then we calculate how many they use over the course of a week and how much oil it takes to make these forks and students begin to see where they can make a difference."

Students majoring in environmental health science are a natural fit for the subject of sustainability, whether it's related to meat consumption, agricultural practices, transportation, water use or waste reduction. Learning about these topics through Zimeri's classes-she teaches four per semester in Athens and one every other summer in Costa Rica-and others in the college is part of their degree requirements.

So when Zimeri wanted to reach a new audience in the form of incoming UGA freshmen, she turned to the university's Office of Sustainability. In May 2012, she joined the first group of faculty participating in an initiative known as Sustainability across the Curriculum.

"It was incredible," she said. "I met a lot of faculty interested in sustainability. I didn't realize before that there was so much interest on campus."

She came out of the two-day workshop with her syllabus ready to go and "some really specific ideas for my class," she said, "so it wasn't this general kind of workshop. We exchanged ideas so that we could take those ideas and integrate them into our own classes."

Now when new UGA students are choosing a First-Year Odyssey seminar, they have the opportunity to enroll in Zimeri's Environmental Film Festival course-FYOS 1001, call number 11613-which combines her love of documentary films with an overview of the topics she teaches in EHSC 3060.

The class incorporates one of her favorite assignments-a sustainability pledge, which is the idea she was most excited about sharing at the faculty workshop.

For one week, "students have to pledge to become more sustainable with a focus on one particular topic," Zimeri said. They can choose to not eat meat, reduce their water consumption, decrease the amount of waste they produce, cut back on electricity, take alternative forms of transportation, eat organic foods/no processed corn, eliminate plastic or use fewer cleaning and personal hygiene chemicals.

Her students then track the data from their pledge week as well as a typical week to calculate their environmental impact. For example, one of Zimeri's students gave up driving for a week. She saved 8 gallons of gas and, through her daily walks to and from classes, logged 9 extra miles and burned 9,023 additional calories.

"It gives me so much hope, and I love that they're wiling to try this stuff," Zimeri said. "They seem to really like it."

Zimeri is one of 39 faculty members who have completed the Sustainability across the Curriculum Faculty Development Workshops. Held annually since 2012, the workshop will welcome its third cohort as soon as the spring semester ends in May.

"The workshop is designed as a bit of a retreat," said Tyra Byers, the program coordinator in the Office of Sustainability who oversees the event. "We want to take the faculty outside of their normal environments and just give them that time and space they need to think and collaborate and reflect."

Faculty members meet at Founders Memorial Garden and House on Lumpkin Street and start day one with definitions and examples of sustainability. They then go into an overview of ways to incorporate it into their classes and, after lunch, take walking tours of campus. They finish the day by breaking into groups and discussing how to integrate sustainability into their courses. On day two, faculty members start applying their new knowledge through development of learning outcomes and more ideas for student engagement.

Once the workshop is over, faculty members have the summer to turn in their homework. And instead of being graded on their revised or rewritten syllabuses, each receives a $500 faculty development award.

"If we can weave sustainability throughout the curriculum," whether through an equation involving green living in a math class, an essay assignment in English or a community health course that includes social, economical and environmental factors, "then students are better equipped when they graduate to help ensure quality of life in the future," Byers said. "We're teaching them to think integratively."

Each time the workshop has been offered, it's included faculty from at least 17 disciplines, she said. The participants' academic specialties range from interior design to food science to women's studies.

Ben Weintraut, a junior from Macon double-majoring in political science and economics, is an Office of Sustainability intern this spring. His semester-long assignment is to focus on the workshop's curriculum.

"I work with a lot of faculty and staff on campus in different disciplines," he said. "It's encouraging to me to see sustainability in motion. It's a way of thinking, and it can benefit you regardless of where you work. You can do anything, you can be a tax collector and be sustainable."

Back in Zimeri's First-Year Odyssey seminar, she's leading her students on a speed-walking tour of the Town Spring, which bubbles up between the Business Service Annex, the Tanner Building and one of the parking lots included in zone N04. From there, she takes them along the edge of the stream-pointing out dumpsters, scattered trash and other pollution sources-until they reach the North Oconee River.

"It's fun to get out of the classroom and show them the water source and how it can become contaminated on its way to the river," she said. "I completely repurposed the idea from the workshop, from one of the tours we took."

During the faculty workshop, the tour focused on the humanities, and the group stopped every so often for a poetry reading. While others were discussing the selected verse, Zimeri was taking note of point-source pollution.

"It was really fun for me," she said. "It was humanities-based and nature-based." And now, with her class, "we don't read poems, but we do talk about the science. By the time we get to the river, they see how we can adulterate the water really quickly."

The Sustainability across the Curriculum workshop is coordinated and run by the Committee for the Integration of Sustainability across the Curriculum administrated by the Office of Sustainability with support from the Odum School of Ecology, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of the Vice President for Instruction. For more information on the workshop, see http://sustainability.uga.edu/get-involved/faculty/curriculum-workshops/. For other faculty resources offered through the Office of Sustainability, see http://sustainability.uga.edu/get-involved/faculty/.