Humanities Lab students continue to leave lasting marks at ASU, in greater community

This image is of a team of six students, 3 female and 3 male holding reusable cutlery.

Humanities Lab, Food Health and Climate Change students launch a plastic reduction campaign on ASU's Tempe Campus. Photo by Maureen Kobierowski


Have you ever thought about the amount of single-use plastic cutlery disposed of daily on the ASU Tempe campus? How about in a semester? Or a year?

During the fall 2021 semester, seven students from the Humanities Lab Food, Health and Climate Change pitched a table adjacent to the Memorial Union and eagerly handed out metal “sporks” to students, faculty, staff and ASU community members. In exchange for the sporks, participants traded a few minutes of their time to complete a digital survey easily accessed through the scan of a QR code. 

The student-designed survey was a carefully planned research initiative stemming from the course and created to collect data for a research-based project to reduce campus waste, improve eating habits and contribute to ASU’s Zero Waste initiative that boldly announces, “ASU will be Zero Waste by 2025.” The sporks distribution was made possible through a unique Humanities Lab grant funded by the course’s faculty members, Joni Adamson from the Department of English and Rimjhim Aggarwal from the School of Sustainability.

The survey included questions such as: How often do you purchase food on campus? Are you familiar with ASU's Zero Waste initiative and its goals? If you were given a set of reusable flatware today, would you use it when eating on campus?

More than 160 responses were collected in less than two hours, providing rich data points about participants’ habits and levels of motivation. The team learned that 59% of participants would be willing to use the reusable cutlery every day, 39.8% stated that they would use it “sometimes” and just 1.2% did not think that being provided reusable flatware would be something that they would use when eating on campus.

The "Sporks Up" team of Sebastian Ching, John Stachnik, Madison Canon, Mitsuki Tanigaki, Parker Phillips, Jasmin Otto and Eliana Burns was pleased with the initial data and how they were able to participate in collaborative research and have an impact in the greater ASU community. 

“Our surveys showed a majority of students were commuter students who ate on campus one to two times per week and would typically use single-use plastic utensils provided by the establishment they purchased from,” said second-year finance major Ching, who, together with his teammates, learned that “98.8% of surveyed students and faculty, (said) they would be willing to switch to reusable utensils if provided by the university.”

"Before working in this lab, I can honestly say I was not very conscious of the environment around me and did not focus on how my actions could be more sustainable," said Stachnik, a junior business entrepreneurship major from the "Sporks Up" team. "After being part of the lab, I (began to) prioritize things such as recycling and eliminating the amount of food we waste."

He said he wanted to be part of the lab because “it (was) a great opportunity to have a positive impact on the community around me by encouraging a more sustainable environment," with his favorite aspect of the lab being the opportunity to “(work) with people from different backgrounds and (learn) how to better work in a group setting."

“Our Humanities Lab students and faculty are breaking the boundaries of traditional pedagogical models."

— Juliann Vitullo, Humanities Lab co-director

Faculty members from the lab had similar sentiments, including Adamson, who shared that she had never had the opportunity to co-teach before this Humanities Lab experience, despite having worked for nearly 20 years in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities at ASU.

Aggarwal, co-faculty for the lab, shared that teaching the lab was an “enriching experience” that “led to the kinds of conversations I have never had in my own classes related to the historical roots of conditions we are facing today.”

“Our Humanities Lab students and faculty are breaking the boundaries of traditional pedagogical models," said Juliann Vitullo, Humanities Lab co-director. "They are developing transdisciplinary, entrepreneurial and creative solutions that address some of our community’s and our world’s most pressing problems. By giving lab teams the opportunity and the tools to develop collaborative, research-based approaches to complex challenges, students experience what kinds of positive changes they are truly capable of creating now — and as they move into the world beyond ASU.”

“This project has been such a delight by getting me involved with other like-minded students who feel the need to help our community," Ching said. "I’ve touched up on my presentation and public speaking skills through our many public presentations. I am most excited to see how much plastic waste we can reduce by offering a reusable option.”

Several members of the "Sporks Up" team will continue to work in the spring 2022 semester through the Humanities Lab’s Beyond the Lab program. 

“We are thrilled to have this team moving forward and continuing to pursue their interests in plastic reduction on campus. They have put forth an exciting set of proposals that stand to make a significant long-term contribution to the ASU community’s sustainable practices and will provide a template for other institutions to reproduce the initiative,” said Heather Switzer, Humanities Lab co-director.

This outcome is one of many that were developed across five different Humanities Labs that ran during the course of the fall 2021 semester.

Other far-reaching public outcomes were presented in the Epidemic Emergences Lab, co-taught by faculty members Cora Fox and Jenny Brian, and the Deconstructing Race Lab, co-taught by faculty members Isaac Joslin and Yeukai Mlambo

One Deconstructing Race Lab team, amongst many, created an impact outcome within the digital gaming community. After a semester-long inquiry into the transnational construction (and deconstruction) of race as a social category and lived experience, David Jaulus, Claire Hetrick, Edwin Wong and Anthony Rosas culminated their research for the course by organizing and hosting an expert panel to speak on the topic of racial representation in video games.

The recorded public event took place over Zoom, with an option to attend in person.

“(This was) one of the best panel conversations I have listened to, ever,” shared Mlambo in a social media post on the Humanities Lab’s Instagram. “This show needs to go on the road. Such an amazing group of humans with so much wisdom to share. Great way to close out our lab!”

Co-faculty member Joslin said that the lab “truly was a collaborative effort” in which he was “happy to have played a part.”

Epidemic Emergences students, after a semester engaged in epidemic research and thoughtful course conversations about their own and their communities' experiences living through the COVID-19 pandemic, also took their messages of intervention into the ASU community. 

After running a five-day Instagram takeover campaign on the Humanities Lab’s social media account, on Nov. 29, students in the lab set up five tables across the ASU Student Pavilion outdoor patio. Each team communicated a different approach to COVID-19-related challenges that engaged questions of social justice and sustainability.

“Mask on the Floor No More” drew attention to the pervasive issue of face mask waste; “Queering Epidemics” partnered with Equality Arizona to record stories of “LGTBQ resilience and survival through times of public health crisis"; and “Background Noise: The Untold Stories of COVID,” a podcasting team, revealed the untold stories of the pandemic through the eyes of health care practitioners.

Another of the teams present at the Epidemic Emergences tabling event was “Immigrant Households and Barriers to Vaccination.” Having learned about the realities of vaccine hesitancy in marginalized communities through their lab research, including issues faced by those who are undocumented, students Jhanz Marco Garcia, Cyrus Eapen, Anthony Un and Darwin Cruz partnered with the COVID Latino project, and ASU professors in law, epidemiology and transborder studies to develop infographics and pamphlets that will be shared in clinics and centers across varying communities.

“Tailoring public health materials specifically for an immigrant group as a class project felt like a step in the right direction.”

– Jhanz Marco Garcia, Epidemic Emergences Lab student and sophomore majoring in anthropology

"I come from an immigrant family. I recognize many immigrants, specifically undocumented immigrants, do not receive the type of protections and benefits that citizens are privileged with in America. This makes it even more difficult for those trying to make a living in a country with a culture and language alien to that which they are accustomed,” said Marco Garcia, a sophomore majoring in anthropology.

He said that “tailoring public health materials specifically for an immigrant group as a class project felt like a step in the right direction,” sharing that the experience for him had been reaffirming that he was headed in the right direction from a career standpoint.

Speaking of her lab experience, Epidemic Emergences co-faculty member Fox said, “I have never taught a course that gave me more insight into the lives of ASU students and their communities. Using the laboratory model and allowing the students to influence the agenda for the course — asking them what mattered to them as people living through and emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic — we opened up new possibilities for collaborative exploration.”

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