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The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

UW’s Sustainability Studios Course Offers Model for Innovative Experiential Learning

April 13th, 2017 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--


By Sara Brostrom – University of Washington Program on the Environment

I got the chance to teach my dream course this winter!

ENVIR 480: Sustainability Studios is an experiential learning course offered every quarter at the University of Washington. The theme changes each quarter in response to student interest and partnerships on the University of Washington campus. This winter the topic was sustainable infrastructure.

The main educational goals for this quarter were for students to experience, reflect and apply their learning to different examples of sustainable infrastructure aimed at managing water, transportation, energy, and land primarily in the Puget Sound region. These educational goals were met through a mix of classroom activities, fieldtrips, guest speakers, and perhaps most impactful, a quarter long project with a local organization.

For the projects, the class was divided into six groups. The projects included a comparative assessment of the green building standards of five different college campuses to the UW campus, a report on issues facing the UW Mercer Court Farm, a development plan for two land plots along the Duwamish, an assessment of the maintenance costs associated with low impact development facilities in the Puget Sound region, and a partnership with a UW start-up on implementing biogas as a service in developing countries. Each project tested students and provided them with an opportunity to learn in an authentic setting.

As an instructor, I learn something new every time I teach a class. This winter I took four valuable lessons to heart that I humbly offer to future instructors of an experiential learning course on sustainable infrastructure.

  1. Define your terms. There is no established definition for sustainable infrastructure. However, my students found the definition developed by Rhys Roth, the director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at the Evergreen State College, the most approachable and applicable to nearly every example of sustainable infrastructure we discussed. Briefly, his definition clarifies that sustainable infrastructure is environmentally sound, resilient, integrated, affordable, rich in co-benefits, and beneficial to the community.

Plants used for the wastewater treatment at the Bullitt Center in Seattle.

  1. Get out of the classroom! Case studies describing successful and unsuccessful implementations of sustainable infrastructure created robust classroom discussions. However, I feel students had the greatest opportunity to apply their learning and take educational risks outside of the classroom with their project groups.

ENVIR 480 students viewing the composting toilets and learning about Loop Biosolids at the Bullitt Center.

  1. Avoid stifling creativity. I kept the fixed requirements for clients and students to a minimum. This approach does create a somewhat riskier learning environment. However, too many guidelines would have limited their autonomy and stifled their creativity.

Students in ENVIR 480 visiting an office space in the Bullitt Center.

  1. Require periodic peer and self-evaluations. This empowers the students to learn from each other through constructive feedback while promoting accountability.

I will take these lessons with me as I embark on Spring quarter with the knowledge that there are more lessons to be learned and many reasons to expand the reach of educational experiences focused on sustainable infrastructure to more students.

Sara Brostrom is an instructor in the University of Washington (UW) Program on the Environment and she is a graduate student in the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.


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