When Michaela Zint revamped the course Environ 211: Social Sciences and Environmental Problems a few years back, she decided the way to motivate students was to appeal to their desire to make a difference.
“When I began to teach the course, I felt I was lacking engaged students. I wondered what I could do to get them excited and paying more attention in class,” said Zint.
So she gave them an assignment to address an environmental sustainability issue. But even that didn’t satisfy.
Now, after more revision and research on three semester’s worth of course outcomes — aided by a Third Century Initiative grant — Zint has learned that the students are less interested in the grand idea of making a difference and more into rolling up their sleeves to solve a local problem.
Wait … what?
It’s a subtle distinction, perhaps, but one that has taken Zint from assigning projects that address the world’s environmental problems in abstract ways to a hands-on approach in which the students tackle campus sustainability issues head-on.
“Addressing the problem of wolves in Michigan, for example, was too far removed from them,” she said.
Now they work with clients like the campus farm, dining halls, residence halls, U-M’s Recycle program, Planet Blue and others to address issues and challenges through a social science lens.
It’s still about making a difference, Zint said, but the goals are practical — not so lofty and out of reach — and the students find much more satisfaction as they often witness their recommendations turn into action.
“The biggest thing I’ll take away from participating in Environment 211 is what a huge role the social sciences play in behavior change and how necessary they are to changing our views and our actions surrounding climate change,” said Katey Carey, a member of a group that worked with the campus farm.
“It was nice to know through this course that our main assignment was to come up with some potential solutions for issues that are actually real, not just a simulation conjured up by our professor.”
Carey’s group addressed the social benefits of the farm and how to get more students to engage with it and volunteer.
“Having the opportunity to work with real organizations really enhanced our ability to learn. It made our work relevant, and in many ways, knowing that our work could be applied to resolve an issue was a motivation to do a better project,” said Sam Wallace, whose team worked with The Food Recovery Network at Michigan, which takes leftovers from the dining halls and delivers them to Food Gatherers for community distribution.
Zint said the required Program in the Environment course had been taught for years as an overview of the role social science plays in the environment. Its intent is to introduce students to a broad range of social sciences — anthropology, economics, education and communication, political science, psychology and sociology — to illustrate the benefits of a holistic approach to understanding and addressing environmental challenges.
“I have to admit that I was not particularly thrilled about taking another social science course,” said Rosemary Kelley. Her group addressed improving student recycling during residence hall Move-In.
“The group project really allowed me to explore a deeper side to environmental sciences that I never knew really existed,” Kelley said.
“I am already finding myself applying social sciences into other aspects of my extracurricular actives and classes. I know now that social sciences are an integral part of environmental efforts, and cannot wait to apply my newfound knowledge everywhere that is appropriate.”
The campus organizations served by the students have been very impressed with their work, which includes creating a website that details the problems, relevant social science research and recommended solutions.
In fact, these campus sustainability leaders look forward each semester to working with the groups on new challenges.
They devote time to the students: brainstorming about the issues that need attention, answering questions and supplying information, and then attending the final class to hear the solutions students have developed for their respective areas.
Keith Soster, director for student engagement for Michigan Dining, has taken many ideas away from the student presentations.
From the latest class he was excited to hear ideas for a demo kitchen in South Quad for students to learn about sustainable food practices, labeling to better promote the university’s move four years ago to fair-trade coffee, and volunteer recruitment strategies for the food network project.
“Being able to take students and involve them in real world challenges is awesome. Sometimes the ideas won’t come to fruition right away, but to be able to sit and listen to what they had to say, like on fair trade, was really helpful,” said Soster, who then pitched some of the ideas he heard to dining hall staff.
Other ideas just take off, Soster said. A previous class had wanted to eliminate bottled water on campus. They couldn’t quite do that entirely but through the research that is a major part of every group assignment, they found ways to reduce, including the use of water refill stations. Today, more than 140 of the stations are now located in Student Life areas on campus.
“I think that any time students get to work with folks from the operations side, it’s pretty unique,” said Kenneth Keeler, senior sustainability representative for Planet Blue. “We want to build the campus’ sustainability movement so we need to know what people are interested in, and we get a view of what they are thinking through the students’ presentations.”
Zint said, in turn, she gets a class full of students who are highly engaged.
“Both my experience in class and the research around this project confirmed that students are motivated to work on this assignment and, therefore, performing better academically. They are also having more fun and finding the course more interesting.”