Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations on Campus)
Walking the Talk
- By Molly A. Jacobson, Andrea Kidder
- April 1st, 2014
Nestled inside the Adirondack Park of upstate New York, Paul Smith’s College is as idyllic as it is empirical. The approach to education at the college, from business management to environmental science, is to immerse students in their field of study outside the four walls of a classroom.
Sustainability is a popular topic in education conversations, as environmental concerns align with major industry interests. Paul Smith’s College faculty, like associate professor Brett McLeod, are taking sustainability outside the parameters of a textbook and showing students what it looks like when applied to real life.
Living the Example
McLeod takes environmental sustainability into his life’s work; both in the classroom and by his way of life. He lives on a 25-acre homestead where he raises roughly 50 percent of the food he consumes. He prefers using horses and hand tools for the majority of his work, heats his home with wood, owns a flock of chickens and depends on the camaraderie of neighbors for bartering, carpooling and sharing chores like making maple syrup.
McLeod’s personal life filters into his lesson plans and sustainability curriculum at Paul Smith’s College.
“I suppose I’ve never seen my teaching (or coaching or anything else that I do) as being separate from the rest of my life. This blending is probably a result of having good mentors along the way who have told me things like, ‘pick your lifestyle, not your job,’ or ‘pick a career you love and you’ll never have to work a day of your life.’ Slightly cliché, but certainly true,” McLeod explains.
McLeod’s conviction to teach these skills to his students stems from his own life choices. His passion for environmentally responsible living compels him to go beyond teaching it in class, and actually live it out in day-to-day activities.
“Why should I expect my students to listen to me lecture on issues of sustainability if I’m not walking the talk? Why should a student make the sacrifices associated with sustainability, if their professor is going to drive home in a gas guzzler, eat genetically modified food and live in a house that’s made with toxic materials?” McLeod asks.
However, McLeod’s approach offers students more than just lectures about the importance of sustainability. An integral component to the hands-on experience at Paul Smith’s College is allowing students to transition from passive observers to become the drivers of change on campus, stemming from what they learn. For example, McLeod encourages the students in his Intro to Natural Resources & Society class to calculate their ecological footprint and then consider changes to their daily routine that can lessen their impact on Earth’s resources. In the past, his students have given up meat, shortened their shower times, carpooled to class and even reduced how often they flush the toilet.
“The skills the students learn have largely been lost in America. There was once a time when proficiency with an axe was as common as proficient Tweeting or texting is today (if texting is even a skill),” McLeod says. “My goal is to make sure this knowledge doesn’t get lost and finds new currency.”
An Eye on the Future
The future of our world depends on sustainability. McLeod and other faculty members at the college have recognized that it’s going to take more than studying terms and theories to produce real change. Sustainability is more than a trend for students to try out for one week of the semester. Sustainability has to reach outside the classroom and weave into students’ habits. McLeod’s combination of in-class lectures and real world applications within the college’s 14,000-acre campus do just that.
In addition to teaching forestry and sustainability courses, McLeod coaches the Paul Smith’s Woodsmen Team. The team has been in existence since 1955 and practices a variety of old-time lumberjack skills as part of a co-ed intercollegiate competition.
“I do this to help students develop a new perspective and allow them to effect change within themselves, he observes. “The idea is to make them think.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.