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Students, faculty 'show' sustainability at open house event

Three women and two men pose for the camera.
May 16, 2013

Assistant professor David Manuel-Navarrete started the semester by giving his students a choice. They could produce a report, or they could produce a video. The video would be a lot more work, he warned them, but the students decided that was what they wanted to do.

Their assignment, then, was to produce a video that incorporated what they’d learned in Manuel-Navarrete’s course, Sustainability Leadership and Social Change. Using ASU as an example, their video demonstrated an organization’s transformation toward sustainability, addressing topics like leadership, barriers and changes to the structure of the organization.

Manuel-Navarrete and his students presented at the School of Sustainability’s year-end open house and project showcase. The event, which began several years ago as a year-end poster session for students enrolled in the sustainability capstone course, grew to something bigger this year.

Previously, the open house event focused on internship experiences. This year, the event was designed to create new collaborations and highlight a variety of real-world learning opportunities; what the School calls Project-and Problem-Based Learning (PPBL).

Solving complex problems

The School of Sustainability’s community-university liaison, Katja Brundiers, described the importance of PPBL. “Since the School was first established, we have put value on diverse learning and teaching strategies that simulate professional team settings, address real-world sustainability issues and involve community members as project partners. When an outcome is needed, when it is supposed to be useful, it helps the student to become a more critical thinker and a better problem-solver.”

At the School of Sustainability, nothing is simple. Every problem is multi-faceted, and it takes some complex thinking to come up with the best possible solution.

Staff applied that same complex-thinking approach to this year’s open house event. They wanted not only to show off successful student experiences, but also improve upon young ventures and create new partnership and learning opportunities. They wanted faculty and students to have an opportunity to interact one-on-one. They wanted to welcome project partners, prospective students and the public.

Most of all, they wanted to celebrate, encourage and support the faculty, students and community partners who are leading the way in implementing PPBL, this model of rich, experiential learning and problem-solving.

The staff members asked themselves what kind of event would fulfill all of these needs in an efficient and effective way. What would that look like?

They arrived on the open house and project showcase. Part poster session, part mixer, part lecture, part discussion – all focused on real-world, project- and problem-based learning.

Showcasing real-world learning

The open house and project showcase event was a great venue for the students in Manuel-Navarrete’s course to talk about what they’d learned.

The students – Cara Garz, Monserrat Gomez-Cesar, Julia Mowry and Daniel Muchow – produced quite an exceptional video, but it wasn’t the video quality that mattered. “In addition to learning the course material, these students learned to articulate a message and to manage a project,” said Manuel-Navarrete. Their message: doing an applied project is a great way to learn a subject.

Senior Christian Gort had a similar message. He came to Wrigley Hall armed with fliers, a poster and a pitch. He was there to show off the knowledge and experience he’d gained through his internship, and to find a new intern who could carry on his work with the City of Phoenix Transportation Department’s Bicycle Program during the next school year.

Faculty presented at the event as well. Assistant professor Michael Schoon shared an interesting example of real-world learning. During his course, Sustainable Project Design and Management, Schoon’s team of graduate student co-instructors not only developed a project plan for a local organization, but also mentored undergraduate students to carry out the project.

Schoon and associate professor Rimjhim Aggarwal joined the open house event to review their courses in two “Conversation for Action” discussions. These conversations allowed the professors to interact with current and future students to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and how they might improve on their courses in the future.

The measure of success

Internship coordinator Sada Gilbert, who worked with Brundiers to develop the event, sees this kind of enhanced learning outcome every day. It was the reason for the original internship poster session format launched several years ago. What was lacking before this enhanced event, she says, was an opportunity for students to showcase experiences beyond internships – to other students, to faculty and to the community partners who made it possible.

Graduate representative Amy Minowitz was enthusiastic about the event.

“One thing I hear from sustainability graduate students all the time is that they want to know what other people are doing. What are the faculty doing, what is their research, is there an opportunity to get involved? In general, what is going on in the School?" she said. "This event was a great pilot to address these needs.”