March 18, 2020Print | PDF
Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Robert McLeman believes the best way to teach students about sustainability and inspire them to become engaged citizens is through practice.
In Introduction to Sustainability, a second-year undergraduate offering, students apply in-class theory to solve real problems within the townships of Waterloo Region. Students are organized into consulting teams and work with local governments to generate ideas and project plans that address environmental, economic or social sustainability issues.
“When I inherited Introduction to Sustainability in 2018, I wanted to explore the addition of a community-engaged component,” says McLeman. “I saw this as a gateway to community engagement for students and a way to provide real value to the residents of the townships we would partner with.”
Students consult with a different township community each term the course is offered. Past and current partners include St. Jacobs and Breslau in Woolwich Township and Ayr in North Dumfries township. Students are briefed by planning officials about the project they will work on and then conduct site visits, monitor local media and survey residents about sustainability needs. At the end of the course, students present their ideas to township staff and share their project reports with them.
To connect the residents of Breslau, Lucas Radowsky’s student team proposed the creation of two dog parks. The team’s report considered the economics of using cost-effective LED lights in the parks, the social implications of providing residents with a safe place to gather and the use of sustainable composting technology for waste disposal.
“The site visit let us see the community and get a real sense of what could be improved,” says Radowsky, a student in the Department of Environmental Science. “The experiential learning was so valuable because it brought a hands-on, visual element to the concepts we were learning in class.”
Rosemary Brockett and her team worked on a project that aimed to incorporate sustainability into a new brewpub in Ayr. The team recommended a vacant building in the heart of the community as the site for the family-friendly public house.
“We knew the project was important and visiting Ayr really raised the stakes,” says Brockett. “Seeing the buildings, environment and people that would be impacted by our project made it feel like our abilities, skills and knowledge were being taken seriously.”
Brockett works in Laurier’s Sustainability Office. She transferred into environmental studies during her second year, a decision motivated by her experience taking Introduction to Sustainability.
“I was developing a personal interest in sustainability at the time, but it was interesting to see the full picture and realize how complex an issue this is in communities,” says Brockett. “In class, we talk about theory and the ‘ideal’ situation – but what does that actually look like in reality, in local communities?”
McLeman says students taking Introduction to Sustainability acquire practical knowledge in project development, sustainable environmental design and professional report writing. For many students, the course is their first encounter with experiential learning.
Instructors who embed experiential learning into courses are supported by Laurier’s Community and Workplace Partnerships team. Scott Keller, workplace partnerships coordinator, says students gain valuable transferrable skills and knowledge during experiential learning opportunities.
“Experiences like this are a great chance for career exploration,” says Keller. “We work with students to guide them through their reflection of the experience, some of the personal and professional value they have received and the contributions they have made to the community partner.”
Student experiences outside the classroom in Introduction to Sustainability are tracked using the Laurier Experience Record, a verified record of engagement with experiential learning opportunities throughout a student’s time at Laurier. Many students in Introduction to Sustainability report noticeable growth in research, time management and collaboration skills.
“I remember writing my initial reflection and saying that the project seemed daunting,” says Radowsky. “By the end, I developed an adaptability and openness to new ideas.”
Introduction to Sustainability also helped Radowsky articulate what he wants for his future.
“This class sparked my interest in sustainability,” says Radowsky. “I’m planning to do an undergraduate thesis project inspired by the course and now I know I want to eventually have a job where I can balance time in an office with time in the field.”