volunteers in woods

Sustainable change: It's academic

Emory's vision of sustainability goes far beyond recycling to become fully integrated into classes and campus life.

Christian Bowers is determined to demonstrate the practical aspects of sustainability in the business world. The Emory College senior is already trying his hand at doing so through an internship at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He hopes to do the same when he works for the multinational firm EY after graduation. And it all began in a freshman seminar at Emory.

That seminar on climate change sparked his interest and led him to pursue a double major in economics and environmental sciences. Study abroad in Germany, an internship with the university's sustainability initiatives office, and an alternative spring break project developed his awareness of the issues.

"I didn't have an 'aha' moment," he says of his enthusiasm about sustainability, which combines environmental considerations with economic and social analyses. "It's been gradual, more from just noticing how the world is changing and what I want the world to become -- or what I don't want the world to become."

Bowers' engagement in sustainability led to his selection as the undergraduate representative on Emory's Sustainability Visioning Committee. The panel of faculty, students, and staff is currently drafting goals that will build on the success of those developed under the 2005-2015 strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads.

"The true genesis of the initiative -- why Emory did this -- was to fulfill its ethical mission," Sustainability Initiatives Director Ciannat Howett says of the decision to include sustainability in the strategic plan. "It makes our ethical commitment more meaningful and real."

Through a multitude of interdepartmental and interdisciplinary efforts, the expression of Emory's ethical commitment through sustainability is becoming ever more integrated across campus. For example, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Demetrius Woods, a member of the visioning committee and a 2008 alumnus of Emory's schools of medicine and public health, wants to empower doctors to make sustainable decisions using education and evidence. His research project comparing the carbon footprint of three types of surgery was recently accepted for publication.

"We're going to see all kinds of health effects from climate change," Woods says. "The way I've always approached it is 'do no harm' -- the concept is part of the Hippocratic oath and applies not just at the bedside but also to our place in society."

Academics + operations

The Office of Sustainability Initiatives' list of accomplishments is long and varied, the result of a deliberate focus on connecting its vision to both the academic and operational aspects of Emory. "Prior to the idea of integrating sustainability into the curriculum, the domain of university operations stood separate," explains Howett, an environmental lawyer who returned to her alma mater in 2006 to develop the university's vision into a viable program. "Now what's so exciting is that the operational piece becomes the subject of teaching, research, and community outreach, bringing domains of university together in a way that's really enriching."

Faculty already are incorporating Emory's new WaterHub, a water reclamation facility that looks like greenhouse and functions like a wastewater treatment center, into undergraduate and graduate classes. The chance to engage in research during the system's start-up places students "on the cutting edge of a global revolution," says Christine Moe, director of the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory. Her students analyzed the microbiology of wastewater samples from the WaterHub for a course last semester.

What's more, the facility is projected to cut the university's potable water consumption by as much as a third and save millions of dollars in utility costs over time, according to Campus Services Vice President Matthew Early. It also promises to ease the pressure on an overburdened county sewer system whose overflow impacts quality of life, especially in poorer communities, according to Howett.

"That didn't just happen," she says of the facility's combination of educational, social, environmental, and economic benefits. "The strategic plan vision says that we're going to look at these things in a whole new way and ask new questions aligned with our mission, and this new kind of thinking produces these incredible results."

Sustainability-related courses are offered at all nine of Emory’s colleges and schools and in dozens of departments from art history to physics to women's studies. The sustainability minor debuted in 2010 with course requirements in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities as well as a capstone seminar for student-led research projects. The environmental sciences department plans to add a sustainability sciences minor to its current offerings that include joint degree programs with Laney Graduate School and Rollins School of Public Health as well as a concentration in environment and sustainability management with Goizueta Business School.

"What we have seen all along is that you start with innovation around sustainability in one class, and it snowballs into how people think about pedagogy in several classes and then into their research and interdisciplinary connections," says Peggy Barlett, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology.

Barlett has helped guide that innovation through the Piedmont Project, a long-running program she co-founded with Arri Eisen, professor of pedagogy in biology. The Emory-based initiative has become a national example of how to help faculty and graduate students integrate sustainability into their courses.

Building on this foundation, a new seminar is pairing undergraduate leaders in sustainability with community leaders working in corporate, nonprofit and government sectors. The course provides students with examples of real-world challenges and solutions in the field. "With all of the activity in Atlanta around sustainability, we have a lot of opportunities to partner on community issues," says Sustainability Distinguished Teaching Fellow Shaunna Barnhart.

Learning by doing

Complementing the coursework, a focus on individual as well as institutional change distinguishes Emory's sustainability work, according to Barnhart: "Emory offers a lot of opportunities for students to actually experience what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle in a way that's woven throughout the day."

Such opportunities abound not only in classes and co-curricular activities, but also in spaces such as dining and residence halls. "Our hope is that you'll be introduced to principles and practices through an immersion experience on campus," Howett says.

The first-year living-learning theme, Living Green: Sustainability in the 21st Century, brings nearly 300 students together by connecting everyday decisions to practical goals as well as ideals, says Kyle Griffith, complex director for the Few and Evans residence halls.

"This is what it means to be a part of Emory's academic community, engaging with different concepts. The residence hall is not just a place where we're going to put all our stuff. We're a community of learners," Griffith says. With programming in place, he is encouraging more peer-to-peer teaching.

Emory College junior Tyler Stern wanted to be a resident adviser at Few-Evans to share the appreciation for sustainability that he's gained here. He's pursuing an applied physics major to help "rethink how we do things" and work on innovative solutions, and he brings the same optimism to residence hall programs. "I like teaching people why it's important to care about recycling and turning off lights and water, and to help them care," Stern says.

Bringing the lessons full-circle back to the classroom, a Few-Evans program last fall featured the findings of a freshman seminar on renewable energy. The seminar students saw the value in sharing their work and volunteered to repeat the presentation at the weekly Farmers Market on campus, says William Henry Emerson Professor of Chemistry Tim Lian. And a couple of the first-year students went on to pursue research positions in his and colleagues' labs.

"I can only teach 18 students through this class, but hopefully they will be talking with their friends and having discussion beyond the classroom," Lian says. "The sustainability initiative provides a great context to go beyond research and make a connection with the community."