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Improving sustainability at Brandeis in the classroom

By Blake Linzer

Section: Features

November 4, 2016

Professor Laurin Goldin (ENVS), working as the chief environmental lawyer for the Massachusetts State Department of Environmental protection, came to Brandeis University as a teaching fellow for the Intro to Law course. As a teaching fellow, she fell in love with Brandeis students and the commitment to social justice at the university, but was appalled that, at the time, the only thing that Brandeis was doing for environmental sustainability was recycling cans.

To address the lack of sustainability initiatives at Brandeis, Goldin knocked on doors and worked with a multitude of people including staff members in facilities and capital projects. She also worked with the nine members of Students for Environmental Action (SEA), and Brandeis Environmental Sustainability Team (BEST) was created as the precursor to more contemporary sustainability efforts on campus.

Eventually momentum built and the President’s Task Force on Sustainability was formed. With the commitment, Brandeis’ first sustainability coordinator was hired.

Professor Goldin’s AMST 191b Experiential Learning class, Greening the Ivory Tower: Improving Environmental Sustainability of Brandeis and Community, has grown since its creation to improve infrastructure of the Brandeis environmental sustainability community. Its purpose, Goldin said, was to be the creator of new sustainability initiatives and projects at the university.

In conceiving the class, Goldin considered her past experiences. She said that she had spent her entire career on the ground working with people, figuring out how to tackle problems; for example, “How are we going to solve the problem of getting people around the table to talk together about dealing with a wetland issue? How are we going to negotiate with them?”

As a result, she knew that the best way to educate students about environmental issues was to “solve a problem together.” She had to “get [the students] involved.”

The description of the course in the Brandeis schedule of classes is consistent with her idea to educate through problem solving.

Goldin wanted the students to understand “how their own environment on campus and in their communities functioned.” Because no active sustainability community existed at the time she arrived on campus, she figured a great way to teach students to learn how to interact with the environment and live more sustainably would be through exploring their own campus.

Ultimately, she hopes the class leads to a larger culture of sustainability at Brandeis. “The fact that we have a sustainability manager had a seed in the greening class,” said Goldin.

The class is divided into two major parts: an educational section and a project section.

In the educational section, students read and write to understand the food system, the water system and the energy system. The class also explores the sustainability infrastructure of the Brandeis campus, exploring how environmental sustainability works at Brandeis.

After understanding the Brandeis sustainability environment, the class takes trips off campus to see other models. They examine sustainable farming, sustainable eating, protoculture, energy solution and alternative energy models, and they look at places where innovative water preservation is being conducted.

During some of these trips, students get involved to explore how they could potentially develop ideas to apply to Brandeis and their communities.

The trips, explains Goldin, are designed to “see what the effect is [of outsiders’ sustainability projects] and try to bring that back home and see what else we could do—what are the alternatives?”

Students are first asked, “What projects can we come up with?” This question leads to the second part of the course where students construct projects to solve some environmental problems at Brandeis.

“It was always something about projects … let’s do something useful here … I wanted to get the students to be able to read things, study things which could be put to some use,” explained Goldin. When the course was introduced, she describes that “there was so much lacking that needed to get done, and I was surprised that … this was a place that was so dedicated to… moral good and contributing to society, and yet, Brandeis was not considering its own environmental impact.”

Past course projects have included construction of the rooftop farm on top of the Gerstenzang science building. Some ideas for this year’s projects are building a green room of interior air quality, a room of “living breathing plants” in a currently unused area of the Shapiro Campus Center (SCC), an energy conservation app project and building solar tables.

The course, however, goes beyond projects. The six credit class is “all about understanding the way we live now and trying to come up with a better way that our society can organize itself and live in communities in a more sustainable way for the future. That’s a tall order and it takes an enormous amount of thought and discussion and creativity and that’s what this course is all about,” said Goldin.

After understanding is established on the ground, the class moves on to important issues like environmental policy. In order to discuss policy, one must, according to Goldin, “understand how it looks on the ground … how it might impact how things are really going on. To visualize what it might do actually.”

Environmental sustainability has an important connection to Brandeis as an issue of social justice. When asked about the connection of social justice and environmental sustainability, Goldin explained that the environmental problems of our day affect different people in different ways, perhaps affecting disadvantaged people disproportionately. And beyond the disadvantaged, it is pretty obvious that problems of environmental sustainability affect all of us.

It may not seem like improving the sustainability of one campus makes a difference, but Goldin believes that every little step is important, as is a sense of humility.

When asked about a hypothetical but likely existing attitude of someone who would not work on smaller projects but instead confine themselves to solving tremendous world problems at the expense of undertaking smaller projects, Goldin posits that such an attitude is rather selfish. We have to start somewhere, and even the smallest of projects can add up. Like every vote counting in an election, every action counts for sustainability.

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