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Living In A Classroom: How Higher Ed Can Provide Hands-On Sustainability Education

By Sharon Chen
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Encouraging the spread of sustainability on college campuses is important for several reasons: college students are our future leaders, green jobs are booming, and we need to think and act sustainably in order to ensure that we have a healthy world for all. How can higher ed teach sustainability in a way that will leave a lasting impact on students?

Hands-on learning is an important way to impart the importance of sustainability on students. Providing opportunities to actually see the consequences of our actions on the environment can be much more impactful than reading about climate change in a textbook. At Boston University, students have the opportunity to live in the “Earth House,” a student residence that is focused on environmental sustainability. Students learn about everything from where the water they use to brush their teeth comes from, how to reduce energy usage, and ways that every day actions can make a big difference.

The "Earth House" is a great example of hands-on learning in a relatable setting that is likely to leave lasting impressions. By reinforcing sustainability at home, through simple, every day actions, higher ed can teach green lessons that will last long after students have left campus. For more ways to encourage sustainability on your campus, join us on the Path to Positive.


Earth House Doubles as Environmental Classroom

Rich Barlow | BU Today | January 22, 2016

Vivien Chen takes a five-minute timer with her to the shower. So does Mark Holaday, and they both use watt-counters when turning on lights and electrical devices.

Neurotic? No: this drill is course work. Chen (CAS’19) and Holaday (SAR’16) are among 18 students in this year’s pilot class at Earth House, the newest of BU’s “living-learning communities” that tie a student residence with a particular academic interest and curriculum. (Earth House previously existed as a residential program for eco-minded students, without the curriculum and accompanying course credits.)

What makes the revamped Earth House, a conventional urban brownstone at 7 Buswell St., so innovative is that BU undergraduates study how the mundane events of everyday living consume resources, and how that living might be made more environmentally sustainable.

An open house for students interested in next year’s class—applications are due February 1—will be held this coming Monday, January 25 (see information below).

“All that stuff that we have to get out of the way, like brushing our teeth or putting the coffee on—all those actions have consequences for the environment,” says Earth House director Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment. “Where did that water come from? Where did the electricity come from?…What’s in that light fixture? Where did those electrons come from? Where do the water pipes come from? Where do the gas pipes come from? How do we connect our experience here to the water reservoir—where does the water come from?”

Residents study such questions during a yearlong practicum that includes living in the house and taking one class in both the fall and the spring semesters. The classes are “focused on learning about the house—how it works—and how the people living in there are interacting with the systems,” Phillips says. Beginning next year, the practicum will offer four course credits—which students may apply toward a minor in sustainability if they wish—and will satisfy the CAS natural science divisional requirement. It’s the first time a living-learning community has provided course credits.

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