Campus as a Lab Part 3: Serve Students Through Better Faculty/Administration Integration

Source: Rutgers Living Laboratories

The figure at the top is a repeat from the first blog in this series (July 19th). The first two blogs were posted during the summer when I was working from home and traveling in Europe. I am writing this blog at the beginning of the fall semester, and have started to work on implementing the mission the figure illustrates in my own school.

I am focused on three aspects of this attempt: The relationship between faculty, administrators, and students as determined through the governance of the institution, incorporating the concept into my teaching, and integrating the concept of “Living Laboratories” into the mandated sustainability efforts of the school. I’m repeating the figure above based on the premise that all the campus and university personnel that are needed to improve the governance of the school are very busy, and this blog is probably the only document that I have any right to hope that they will read.

As to the examples shown in the figure, I would add the following categories below the overlapping circles of Institutional Sustainability and Living Laboratories: mandated decarbonization, mandated decrease in the use of single-use plastics, and testing of sewage for early detection of viral threats. I would also incorporate efficiently running schools with decreased enrollments—a problem that threatens us all given the declining global population. All these threats (and the ones that I don’t know to include) are components of the correlations between Institutional Sustainability and Living Laboratories shown in the figure.

I teach at the City University of New York (CUNY):

The City University of New York (abbr. CUNY; /ˈkjuːni/, KYOO-nee) is the public university system of New York City. It is the largest urban university system in the United States, comprising 25 campuses: eleven senior colleges, seven community colleges, six professional institutions ,one undergraduate honors college and a University Center headed by the Chancellor. While its constituent colleges date back as far as 1847, CUNY was established in 1961. The university enrolls more than 275,000 students.

The university has one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States, with students hailing from around the world, but mostly from New York City. The black, white and Hispanic undergraduate populations each comprise more than a quarter of the student body, and Asian undergraduates make up 18 percent. Fifty-eight percent are female, and 28 percent are 25 or older.[59] In the 2017–2018 award year, 144,380 CUNY students received the Federal Pell Grant.[60]

CUNY employs 6,700 full-time faculty members and over 10,000 adjunct faculty members.

By necessity, the governance of the university is complicated; it involves not only the overall institution but also the governance of all the individual colleges. All report to the Chancellor, who in turn reports to the Board of Directors. The university’s mandate is anchored in the New York State Educational Law 125, Section 6201.

I teach at Brooklyn College, one of the senior colleges. Within that, I teach at the Honor College, Macaulay, and occasionally in the Graduate Center. I am directly involved in my college’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint and in the university’s efforts to reduce its single-use plastic. Over the last three years, the focus of my Macaulay class has been to follow our school’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint. Last year, we focused on the lessons that the COVID-19-triggered shifts to online learning can provide about how to minimize energy use under normal, in-person, conditions. The August 2nd “Campus as a Lab” blog (the second in the series) shows the details and one of the final products that emerged. That work also shows the benefits of a closer relationship of cooperation with the administration, in addition to highlighting some of the difficulties that the complexity of the university structure imposes on meaningful on-campus changes.

The most direct mechanism to minimize carbon emissions would be to change the energy sources that power the campuses. However, the consortia structure of the university means that the University Center purchases the energy and then distributes it to the campuses (granted, if a campus is using less energy than estimated, it is compensated for the saved energy). In addition, the buildings of a campus belong to CUNY, not to the campuses or colleges. So, a campus is not free, on its own to install photovoltaic panels or wind turbines to replace some of its energy sources. Only CUNY can do that. What the individual campuses can do is educate their own students to minimize wasted energy and receive the benefits of their actions. This concept can be generalized for most of the other transitions that campuses are now going through. Almost every one of them has both a top-down and a bottom-up component for implementation.

Incorporating the decarbonization efforts into my course curriculum was a straightforward exercise. It was implemented in a course that was generally labeled as “Science-Forward,” meaning that instructors have the freedom to teach almost anything as long as they incorporate certain essential elements. Almost all of the students came in with a solid background in high school science. My course has always focused on climate change, so it was not difficult to add the research component that relates to the transitions taking place on campus. This year’s experiment is exploring the incorporation of college transition into other disciplines.

The methodology I use in teaching the class is based on Team-Based Learning (TBL): the class is divided into groups that work together. Half of the semester is dedicated to the background, while the other half is spent on research projects. We end with posters that summarize the work done—like the one shown in the August 2nd blog.

The groups are divided into four of the five schools that make up the college’s departmental structure. These schools include Business (4 departments), Education (4), Science (9), and Social Sciences (8 interdisciplinary programs and 12 departments). The students’ research job is not to change any of the offered courses or to add new courses but to identify candidate courses in which aspects of the transitions already in effect in the college could help in the teaching. Once they find the target courses, they approach the relevant teaching faculty and discuss how to implement the changes, including the specific materials (I focus on energy use in my course). Only then can they approach the administration to help faculty in the next steps toward implementation.

Cooperation of students in different disciplines on similar aspects in college changes will encourage interdisciplinary work. This should also result in more cluster hiring, as I mentioned in the July 19th blog.

This is all new but not unique to me or to the institution. I gave some background and activities taking place at other institutions in the first two blogs in this series. The activities that I outline here aim to achieve two complementary objectives: improve the students’ education through the incorporation of practical experiences (hopefully helping them succeed in similar transitions after graduation) and at the same time help prepare the college to lead in the long-term changing realities of the physical environment that engulfs us all.

In most cases, such activities involve budgetary and personnel tensions between present and future needs. Every step taken to improve prospects in the future must consider the price against present needs. We must experiment to achieve the right balance and consider cost-effectiveness in any pilot that we are undertaking. However, the need for such balance is not restricted to academic institutions; it also applies to society at large. That said, society is supporting academic institutions to be the leaders in these existential changes.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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