Thompson Rivers University

Geography class campaigns for sustainability

April 22, 2015

By Pam Erikson

Instead of just talking about environmental concerns, TRU geography students took action through six crowdfunded projects to raise awareness, purchase needed equipment and even create awards for student research.

Geography professor Dr. Michael Mehta gave students in his Environment and Resources course (GEOG 3100) an assignment far removed from the typical essay: create six different sustainability awareness campaigns. The resulting group projects include rainwater collection, a bike-sharing program, a weather station and a community garden—all on campus—a website encouraging a low-meat diet, and an award for undergraduate environmental research.

Towards a real-life goal
Third-year geography and environmental studies major Cheryl Fraser found the departure from research assignments and essays a valuable experience.

“Working in a non-traditional learning environment has definitely been an adjustment from other classes I have taken,” she says. “But I feel I am more confident in my knowledge on the subject I am learning, and it has also given me an excellent opportunity to work towards a real-life goal.”

Water collection is especially important in Kamloops’ dry, desert-like climate, she says. Her group has put forward rainwater collection as an easy and inexpensive complementary source of water for TRU’s horticultural greenhouse. Fraser hopes the project will show a commitment from TRU to water conservation, and that the university can become a leader in sustainable development in the community.

“Working on this campaign has also helped me develop my networking skills, which I feel is one of the most valuable skills that I will take away from my university experience,” she says.

Fourth-year geography and geomatics student Sarah Cooke is working on “Bikes for You at TRU”, a bike-sharing program that could help students who rush to get from classes on one side of campus to the other. She adds that cycling is key to reducing traffic congestion, and can help save money students spend on parking.

“Hopefully the program sparks interest in the people who utilize the bikes to start riding their own bike more often when they’re not on campus, or even get them to start cycling to school,” says Cooke.

The unconventional assignment has benefited her in ways she didn’t expect.

“I’ve been able to absorb the material I’ve been learning away from class continually, throughout the semester,” she explains. “It’s different from taking notes through the semester and then cramming to comprehend the material at the middle mark and end of semester.” Skills she has learned will be valuable in the workplace, she adds.

Future learning opportunities
Kary Fell, a fourth-year geography student, is part of a project to raise funds for the installation of a weather station on campus, which would provide learning opportunities for future students. She found the non-traditional assignment challenging because it has fewer guidelines, but says much of its value lies in finding ways to overcome the challenges. The project also lets students learn from one another and solve problems as a team.

Haley Swindon, in the fourth year of an animal biology degree, is part of a project striving to create a campus community garden, which she believes could have multiple benefits for students, such as learning new skills and creating a sense of community. Navigating the approval process has taught her how much work goes into such a project.

“I think learning experiences like this develop communication and teamwork skills more than traditional learning, and should be prominent in university settings,” she says.

Assignments for change
The crowdfunding campaign assignment was inspired by Mehta’s former teachers, who made a personal connection with students and were involved in the community.

When students help teach themselves and each other, he says, their learning retention is significantly higher than in a strictly lecture forum. Mehta’s goal is to instil in the students the awareness that they have the ability to learn complex material alone.

“The missing link,” he says, “is how to bring students into the world they will occupy and master.”

Learning by doing gives students the skills and confidence to apply the knowledge they attain in university to their actual lives, and make a difference in the world.

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