By Mackenzie Rafferty
Environmental sustainability combined with commitments to social justice/equity should be global priorities of our day, although unfortunately this isn’t often the case. Arguably, sustainability as an abstract concept is a highly trending topic and one that politicians and scientists often refer to in light of the needs for sustainable food and energy solutions. Nevertheless, when it comes to actual laws, policies and practical solutions that address both sustainability and social justice / equity much less is happening despite the dire need. This is why the Office of Public engagement, in collaboration with almost a dozen departments at the University of Connecticut, recently entered the conversation. Not only did they engage in discussion, but they also created a prospective plan to combat this global concern.
In the beginning of the Spring 2017 semester, the Office of Public Engagement collaborated with multiple schools, departments, units at the University of Connecticut and proposed a grant to further undergraduate education at the university. The grant was a collaboration between the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; School of Engineering; College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; Office of Public Engagement—Service Learning; Department of Dining Services; Residential Life; Global Affairs—Education Abroad; Facilities Operations and Building Services; First Year Programs and Learning Communities—EcoHouse; and the UConn Spring Valley Student Farm. The project director, as stipulated by the grant proposal, will be Richard Parnas from the Institute of Materials Science.
Taken directly from the grant, a “critical global priority is developing sustainable and equitable food systems that mitigate environmental destruction and climate change.” This project would work “within water use, land use, energy use and ecosystem service constraint.” Planning to take place over the duration of three years, this project requires level one funding. The overall goal of this project would be to create an innovative and constructive demonstration for sustainability within the context of social justice/equity. This project would serve as an education model and prototype for responsible global citizens, which could gather further attention and funding from a variety of public and private sources.
The proposal outlined the prospective sustainability energy projects, “food waste and soil management projects, water conservation projects, an air quality project, a rural semester living/learning program, New England farm-to-table conferences, educational workshops for commercial farms, urban gardeners, university and college student farms/gardens, and innovative student-centered pedagogy.” The courses would be developed in respect of satisfying the Environmental Literacy General Education Requirement for the University and would be offered out of the new Environmental Studies Program, headed by Dr. Carol Atkinson-Palombo.
Additionally, the proposal outlined the planned pairing of alternative residential living and four new service-learning courses. This coupling of living experience and academic courses aims to explore various connections between sustainable food production, local communities and the practices of social justice/equity.
Ultimately, the vision of the proposal is to create a long-lasting model for the future of education. These varied departments have come together in hopes of creating a shift in education and global awareness. “The combination of a diverse student body in the farm environment with the technology demonstration projects outlined provides a powerful programmatic vision of the future.”
The proposal outlined various projected achievements and accomplishments that this project would produce. These perceived achievements are important as they transcend far beyond the walls of UConn, and offer insight to the conversation of sustainability. The hope of this program is to educate students so that they will better comprehend the complexities of social and technical foundations for sustainability. Literacy of these foundations are necessary for anyone on the path towards developing sustainable food systems. Additionally, these courses aspire to instill a sense of confidence and motivation in the students. This hopeful motivation would better equip students who plan to act in “pursuit of public good through research, teaching, partnerships etc.”
Further anticipated outcomes and accomplishments are as follow: development of new environmental literacy course, research and training experience in sustainable and just/equitable food systems, installation and operation of solar photovoltaic system and solar thermal systems, etc.
The proposal stands behind the belief that “interactions of a diverse student body with many community partners in the farm environment with high technology demonstration projects will provide a powerful vision of the future of UConn’s role in creating that future.” Not only does this proposal aim to offer real solutions to a pressing global concern, but this project could lead the way in a new, and innovative type of teaching.
In this alternative pedagogy, students are given the opportunity to become real investors in their own leaning and in their futures. Students, in an academic environment such as this, are allotted with the opportunity to have a tangible impact on their community. This proposal is simply one of many projects pushed forward in the name of Service Learning. More and more, Service Learning courses are reaching the forefront of education and pushing the boundaries for what we recognize as academic learning.
Programs like this are constantly testing the bounds of education; Service Learning shows that education can be taken far beyond the traditional schema of desks and chalkboards. With proposals such as this, students are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in a completely alterative and more engaging educational atmosphere. This proposal offers students the chance to live, work, and create together as they tackle the largest global concern of our time-how to create sustainable and yet just and equitable communities, hence societies. In so doing they will help shape a future where students are not only engrossed in the greater community, but creating lasting impacts. Such a future is one that all academics and engaged citizens can not only hope for, but can in actuality be created with absolute intention.
Faculty and administrators integral to this grant are Drs. Richard Parnas, Ali Bazzi, Kristina Wagstrom, Ioulia Valla from the School of Engineering, Drs. Phoebe Godfrey, Andy Jolly-Ballantine, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Drs. Gerry Berkowitz and Karl Guillard from Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, Rich Miller and Sarah Munro from the Office of Environmental Policy, Dennis Pierce from Dining Services, Julia Cartabiano from Spring Valley Student Farm, and Julia Yakovich, Director of Service Learning Initiatives from the Office of Public Engagement.