UBC is bridging the gap between sustainability theory and practice through a course aimed at engaging third and fourth-year students in real-life campus operations.

Applied Sustainability: UBC as a Living Laboratory (APSC 364) will start in January 2011 and will be open to students from the faculties of Applied Sciences, Forestry, Land and Food Systems, Science, Arts and Sauder School of Business. There are no pre-requisites, and students from all disciplines are encouraged to take the course.

The ‘living lab campus’ concept is central to the course and means creating opportunities, processes and procedures for staff to engage in active dialogues with students and researchers to identify and implement more sustainable pathways.

Course projects will be linked to the UBC SEEDS program, an initiative that brings the campus community together to work collaboratively on applied, accredited research projects that address real-life campus sustainability issues.

While UBC is not the only university taking a collaborative and inter-disciplinary approach to sustainability, what makes this course unique is the combination of theoretical analysis and down-to-earth practical projects that will generate data that UBC operations staff will be able to use to solve a problem.

“Students will essentially work as consultants for UBC, is the idea,” says Dr. Gunilla Öberg, course developer, instructor, and director of the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC. “We want to come up with projects that are actually born from the need of the organization, and the students can step in and help out, and then the outcome is actually used by UBC to drive its own sustainability.”

In the first year, students will examine all UBC infrastructure areas, including buildings, energy systems, transportation and monitoring, and work on pre-selected group projects focused on the UBC energy-water nexus.

Dr. Öberg says the course will bring theory and practice together for students and help them prepare for the realities of the workforce upon graduation. “To be agents of change, students have to understand what challenges companies or organizations face, and by engaging with staff at the University they’ll get a better understanding of the practicalities, and that theory can be a bit away from reality. At the same time, to implement changes without having a connection to theoretical reasoning and reflection doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term change. So what we want to encourage in this course is for the students to be both reflective thinkers and doers at the same time.”

To further enrich their learning, students will attend a public lecture series and several student discussion seminars, and write one academic paper, to exchange ideas in an environment thriving with different perspectives. “My experience is that most people aren’t aware that you can listen to the same talk and get completely different information. People say, ‘Oh wow, is that what you heard? This is what I heard.’ Talking with people with different backgrounds will help students understand what different disciplines can bring to the sustainability dialogue,” says Dr. Öberg.

Liz Ferris, a graduate student in the Resource Management and Environmental Studies program at the UBC IRES, has been developing the course with Dr. Öberg. She also worked at the UBC Campus and Community Planning: Sustainability and Engineering office and says University students, faculty and staff are ready for this new level of collaboration. “UBC operations staff members are very supportive of these ideas. I think that over the past decade there has been a culture change at the University. Before, staff would participate because of a personal interest. Now, collaboration is in the mandate of the University, and that’s very exciting.”

There’s a lot of support for and enthusiasm around the course at the University, and shared investment to make it happen, with course costs split between the faculties involved and UBC operations. “As a graduate student it’s great to be able to continue the work I was involved in both as an undergraduate, and as a staff member at UBC. Through this project it’s clear to see that links between cutting-edge researchers, enthusiastic students, and operational staff really do tangibly transform our campus,” says Ferris.

Dr. Öberg agrees, and hopes the course outcomes not only benefit students as they graduate, but also have a more permanent impact at the University. “I also see it as a long-term thing because every individual student will get a more realistic idea of their contribution. It’s unrealistic, when they come out and work in a company, to think they’ll be able to change the world within a year, or within two months. Through the course, I hope they’ll see that by contributing their little piece, they’re actually pushing the development at UBC.”

Story by Madelen Ortega, UBC Sustainability website writer