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Service Learning Projects Encourage Activism

February 15, 2000

In "Biology of Global Change," a new course at Carleton College, students study the serious impact modern human existence is having on the environment. Outside of class, they are doing something about it.

The 38 students in the class are developing independent environmental studies projects in order to channel the alarm that is raised in class into productive social action. Some students are working with established statewide environmental organizations, like the Green Party of Minnesota, Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME3), and the Division of Natural Resources. Others are working with local schools in environmental education, or focusing on environmental issues specifically facing the Carleton campus.

Assistant Professor of Biology Philip Camill admits that studying the impact humans are having on the environment can be daunting, so he is encouraging his students to maintain hope by engaging in activism. "It's easy to get discouraged, studying this material," he said. "I hope the service learning component of this class will alleviate that-I want it to empower the students. These projects provide students with first-hand experience of how challenging it is to confront the inertia of environmental changes. There are no easy answers, and it's going to require a new way of learning in higher education to figure out how to deal with these issues."

In class, students discovered the impact their lifestyles have on the environment by calculating their "ecological footprint." For one month, they kept track of the food they ate, what they threw away, how often they traveled and in what manner, and how much heat and electricity they used. Using this data, the students calculated the amount of land required to support such a lifestyle, and in general, found that their ecological footprint is at least three times the amount of land allotted to them, if each of the six billion human inhabitants of the earth were given an equal share of available land.

Recognizing the awareness-raising power of such a conclusion, a group of students is now calculating the footprint for the College as a whole. This involves coming up with a footprint for the average student, as well as considering institutional energy and natural resource consumption.

Toward a similar end, another group of students is planning to track the amount of food that goes to waste at the College, and make suggestions about how that waste might be reduced. They are collecting and weighing all the food students leave on their trays after a particular meal, and then using that information to inform the student body about its wasteful habits. This group also will work with Carleton's food service to encourage policy aimed at reducing both the amount of food that students take but don't eat, and the amount of surplus that is cooked but never eaten.

Since there will always be some food waste that must be thrown out, sophomores Jennifer Goldman and Katja Meyer are doing a cost-benefit analysis of composting at Carleton. Using a computerized mapping program called Geographic Information System (GIS), they plan to determine whether or not there is a site on the Carleton campus appropriate for composting food waste. According to Goldman, most of the available land on campus is sandy soil or flood plain, neither of which would work for composting.

The pair also is considering off-campus composting alternatives, which require the additional consideration of ecological and economical resources used in transporting the waste. Meyer and Goldman are studying two local models: St. Olaf College, where composting is done on-campus, and Malt-O-Meal, where waste is turned into animal feed.

Willy Amidon, a junior geology major who has examined environmental issues in other classes, is encouraged by the service projects. "These issues are much more interesting at a local level, because you really feel like you could make a definite change. Hopefully we'll come out of this project with some concrete ideas about what can be done-it would be really satisfying to see some immediate change."

The students will put together a poster presentation at the end of the term, chronicling and publicizing their work. Camill is looking forward to that event, when each individual project will become a piece of the group effort toward raising environmental awareness. "Collectively, there is a tremendous amount of work that will be accomplished," he said. "That's something to be proud of."