The Collegian
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Let's Talk Sustainability: Opportunities to learn about sustainability in UR courses

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh

Editor's note: Let's Talk Sustainability is a column series focusing on sustainability, written by interns from the Office for Sustainability. 

Throughout the month of February, the Office for Sustainability at the University of Richmond was hard at work gathering information for the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), a program designed to allow universities and colleges across the nation to measure their sustainability performance. 

While the STARS report addressed a variety of university metrics, one of the most interesting included a series of academic credits categorized by the report, which required the office to investigate the presence of sustainability in all courses taught at UR within the past several years. 

In total, the office found that 18 sustainability-focused courses, as well as 94 sustainability-related courses that included sustainability content were taught in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic school years. 

Many incorporated opportunities for experiential learning, and some even used the campus as a “living laboratory" to address sustainability. This means they promote multidisciplinary learning and allow students to learn outside of the classroom, building real-world skills and advancing sustainability goals at UR.

The geography, environmental studies and biology departments produced the largest number of sustainability courses, including 10 sustainability-focused and 21 sustainability-related courses. 

The most prominent sustainability course overall was Introduction to Environmental Studies, where for years, students have participated in UR's waste audit process, sorting through recycling and waste bins to get a better understanding of how people contribute to larger waste and recycling challenges. 

However, a variety of courses also appeared in departments that do not typically focus on sustainability. 

Within the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business, Environmental Economics, and Environmental and Resource Economic Theory fit the bill of sustainability courses. 

Sustainability and Accountability in Business also gave students the opportunity to meet with stakeholders across campus and develop a plan that would allow UR to send 75% of the waste generated by UR to a non-landfill destination by year 2025. And in Environmental Management, students conducted case studies and identified market opportunities for sustainable companies. 

Junior Amina Maslo, an accounting major, has taken a variety of sustainability-related economics and management courses, including “Environmental Management” and “Sustainability and Accountability in Business.”

“I think there is a big misconception that sustainability and profit do not go hand in hand in the business world," Maslo said. 

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Because of climate change, the question is not whether businesses will need to change, but when, Maslo said.

Through case studies and examining the environmental and financial implications of businesses' decisions, Maslo said she felt better prepared to combine her analytical skills and understanding of business to achieve sustainability goals and improve resource and risk management. 

“Each inhabitant of the planet depends on its resources," Maslo said. "It is essential that every business school student takes a sustainability class to see ways in which environmental practices can be incorporated into a company’s model."

Other examples of sustainability-oriented classes across campus included sociology class Feast & Famine: Inequalities in the Global Food System. In this class, students worked with local community agriculture advocate Shalom Farms and University Dining Services staff to analyze sustainable dining options on campus.

Several students have also used their senior seminar and capstone projects as opportunities to further engage with sustainability. 

In the global studies senior seminar, Global Poverty and Inequality, senior Haley Neuenfeldt decided to expand upon a previous summer spent studying coffee production in Latin America. Using historical climate and poverty data from El Salvador, she analyzed the relationship between poverty, climate change and coffee for her seminar project.

“Climate change is already being studied in so many different ways, [but] I was interested in how coffee played a role because of its susceptibility to the changing climate and its socio-economic importance," Neuenfeldt said.

In the environmental studies senior seminar and the geography department capstone course, students are analyzing solar initiatives in the city of Richmond and Virginia at large, incorporating field trips to a solar farm and an analysis of UR's existing solar panels into their final papers and maps.

Other students have participated in similar projects aimed at making campus more sustainable. 

When asked about the importance of sustainability and living laboratory courses, senior and biology major Rachel Lantz said the courses enabled students, faculty members and staff members to engage in "a collaborative effort to solve real-world problems."

Lantz was among several students involved with the Gambles Mill Eco-Corridor restoration project, a collaboration between professor Todd Lookingbill’s Geography of the James River Watershed Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course and the Office for Sustainability. 

“This integrated approach allows for all voices to be heard and for students to gain experience in action planning as well as taking on crucial leadership roles in improving the local community," Lantz said. 

The number of sustainability and living laboratory courses offered at UR reflects the variety of ways that sustainability provides a platform for students from diverse academic backgrounds to translate their coursework into real-world ideas and solutions. 

By definition, sustainability requires us to consider the relationships between environmental, economic and social aspects of society. Because liberal arts institutions such as UR emphasize multidisciplinary learning, sustainability comprises an important aspect of a liberal arts education. 

Sustainability relates to and can be applied to almost any topic of study. Further, sustainability challenges students to engage with their work in a way that is relevant to the global community.

By engaging with sustainability through “living laboratory” opportunities, students discover the applicability of their work on campus, in the community and throughout the world, and realize the important link between education and action. 

Since 2016, when the university completed the last STARS report, the number of sustainability points have increased. The Office of Sustainability is waiting for the STARS report to be published by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability for Higher Education by the end of the semester. Each report is published on a school-by-school basis. 

Director of Sustainability Rob Andrejewski commented on the increase of sustainability points. 

“I think [this increase] reflects the momentum I’ve been seeing on campus in the past several years," Andrejewski said.

Contact contributor Rylin McGee at 

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