Earth-conscious experiential education flourishes at York University

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Keeping sustainability in the forefront of campus consciousness is Nicole Arsenault’s mission, not only during Earth Month, but throughout the year.

Nicole Arsenault

“Sustainability is one of York University’s five strategic priorities,” said Arsenault, the University’s program director for sustainability. “We’re not only talking about sustainability in the traditional, ecological sense, but also about how we treat each other so our environment can flourish.”

Arsenault advances the University’s Sustainability Strategy, which includes exploring ways to advance York’s reputation in creating curricula that include sustainability, and finding opportunities to incorporate sustainability into teaching and learning by turning the campus into a living laboratory.

“I’d like to have students leave York being able to articulate the challenges facing our world,” she said.

Of course, all big goals start small. During this academic year, Arsenault worked directly with four of the numerous faculty members who incorporate experiential education into their curricula, focusing on using sustainability as a teaching tool. Not only did these efforts enhance environmental awareness and improve sustainability, they also offered the students hands-on experience as part of York University’s ongoing commitment to experiential education.

The environment and experiential education in psychology

Maggie Toplak

Maggie Toplak, an associate professor of psychology in the Faculty of Health, incorporated environmental awareness into a third-year course she introduced this year, the Psychology of Reasoning, Judgment and Decision-Making.

“I wanted to apply a psychological paradigm called “nudges” (or environmental interventions, by Thaler and Sunstein, 2008) to a real-world issue that would resonate with students, and came up with the idea of getting students to apply a sustainability issue,” Toplak said. “I asked students to work in groups to think about how waste disposal looks today and about what kinds of simple environmental manipulations could bring about better behaviour. The focus was on simple changes in the environment so that the amount of cognitive effort required was minimized. It was an attempt to prompt better behaviour.”

Arsenault was a partner in the project and attended the class’s six-minute PechaKucha-style presentations discussing their solutions. The groups offered ideas about such environmental concerns as sorting waste more efficiently, identifying hydration stations more easily and disposing of cigarette butts. Students were also asked to write a research proposal to demonstrate how to test whether their idea would make a measurable difference.

“By the end of the course, each and every student reported that they were so much more in tune with sustainability issues on campus,” Toplak said. “They’d given it no thought before, but now they realize how hard it is to design the environment in such a way to change behaviours in a positive way.”

For her part, Arsenault has shared a number of the students’ ideas with affected departments or organizations on campus, hoping to see some of them implemented.

Faculty of Environmental Studies plunges in

Peter Mulvihill

At the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), Professor Peter Mulvihill engaged his fourth-year Environmental Assessment class in their own experiential education project.

“A few months ago, the Faculty took over certain functions of the Global Footprint Network, which led to a discussion of what else we could do,” Mulvihill said.

As an experiential exercise, he divided the students into groups and had them examine the campus’s existing environmental footprint as it related to waste, energy, food, transportation, water and land use. Some of the students interviewed campus experts, while others talked with students. They looked at best practices from other institutions and looked for ways to minimize York’s environmental footprint. Their final reports, presented to Arsenault and Professor Martin Bunch, the FES associate dean of research and leader of York’s Ecological Footprint Initiative, made recommendations for improvements, and there is discussion about presenting the findings at the Faculty’s upcoming Environmental Research Day.

“The students got a lot out of it,” Mulvihill said. “They enjoyed getting out to do interviews and learned a lot about their particular issue.”

He is considering whether to incorporate it into his syllabus for the course again, since a footprint is dynamic, so the results will be different each time.

Meanwhile, Mulvihill’s colleague, Ana Maria Martinez, also incorporated experiential education into her advanced FES course, GIS Applications in Environmental Science, and approached Arsenault about working with the Sustainability Office.

“Throughout the semester, students explore technical GIS applications that allow them to gain hands-on experience on the application of GIS analytical tools,” Martinez said. “This year, we worked collectively with the Office of Sustainability at York, the ENVS 4430 Advanced Course on Environmental Impact Assessment taught by Professor Peter Mulvihill and the Ecological Footprint Initiative at York led by Professor Bunch, the GIS co-ordinator for the Faculty. Our goal was to use GIS as a tool to understand how sustainability is done at York, as well as to depict a historical portrayal of York’s sustainable initiatives.”

Her students were divided into groups and asked to research a specific sustainability topic. They had to find and gather the data, organize it and analyze it, getting a lesson in how a project is conducted, along with specific sustainability information.

“As institutional data gathering is complex, students faced challenges and learned how to navigate the hierarchies and micropolitics of data access and use,” Martinez noted. “From their work, each group produced a comprehensive report with rigorous academic standards and a story map. The latter is a new open-access platform that I decided to use in response to questions around technical knowledge and who can interpret it. By creating these story maps, students were able to convey a message that was understandable to everyone, not just GIS practitioners or/and users. The intention is for the Sustainability Office to use these story maps to showcase what York is doing in terms of sustainability.”

Phil Stoesser

For 15 years, until his recent retirement, Phil Stoesser taught Environmental Auditing at FES, and once his students learned the techniques he sent them out across York’s campuses to do team audits on processes undertaken by the Sustainability Office, Campus Services & Business Operations. During his tenure, his students completed 78 audits, evaluating everything from the feasibility of recharging stations for electric cars to hand dryers versus paper towels in washrooms.

“With Nicole involved, there were a lot of findings York was able to implement,” Stoesser said. “Now, there are more places to lock bikes, more receptacles for tobacco disposal and more double-sided printing going on, for example.”

He said the experiential aspect of the course “brought a whole different perspective to the environmental learning experience. It’s not just me droning on in lectures. They got hands-on experience and I met with the groups regularly to discuss their experiences.

“As I told them, this is your university and you have to be proud of it. Here’s your opportunity to make it better.”

Arsenault views making students aware of the importance of sustainability as an ongoing challenge.

“The Times Higher Education survey ranks York University 26th in the world and fifth in Canada in meeting Sustainability Development Goals,” Arsenault said. “From an institutional perspective, higher education has a moral obligation to teach our students about real-world problems and how to resolve them. As innovators, how do we start improving sustainability?”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus