Trends in Green (Sustainable Innovations on Campus)

A Psychological Approach to Sustainability

When people think sustainability, most think of recycling, driving “green” cars or taking shorter showers to conserve water. Unless someone plans to go into environmental science, there seems little practical application for knowledge beyond how one can help on an individual level. However, this is exactly the thinking that many at the University of Arkansas (UofA) have tried to change through Sustainability courses — which includes a Foundations of Sustainability minor — and student activism.

With 36 majors from all colleges represented on campus and a record student enrollment, the Sustainability minor is proof that students as a whole are interested in how sustainability could apply to their future careers, says Director of Sustainability Carlos Ochoa.

The Foundations of Sustainability minor is an 18-credit program open to all UofA undergraduate students. Because it is interdisciplinary, drawing from faculty and courses across all colleges and schools, the minor enhances and reflects each student’s individual academic and career interests. The purpose of the minor is to provide foundational knowledge and skills related to the emerging discipline of sustainability and to prepare students to become innovators within their diverse fields.

“We want to meet people where they are and make sustainable living relevant to everyone,” Ochoa says.

The Social Side

“The minor is very interdisciplinary in of itself and people see their interests reflected in that,” says Cassandra Gronendyke, administrative specialist for Sustainability academic programs. “We want people to see that each issue can be looked at from many different angles, whether it’s how to design a bridge or pass policies dealing with social justice, sustainability has a place in the discussion.”

Enrollment for the program is at an all-time high since its formation in spring 2011, and the department has already submitted a proposal to offer a Sustainability major.

The most popular system is “social,” which delves into the communications and social side of sustainability, Gronendyke says.

Some may wonder what social disciplines like psychology have to do with environmental science, and the answer is “they play a very important role,” says Kenneth Hamilton, Residents’ Interhall Congress sustainability director and psychology major.

“The thing about sustainability, especially in the South, is that it is a new topic and sometimes a hard one to swallow. You don’t have to go out of your way to do a lot of this stuff. That is one of the big things you have to get through people’s minds,” Hamilton says. “They see sustainability and think ‘huge effort, little reward.’ Not true. One of my main goals is to get it through people’s heads that you can take small steps and have a big impact. If everyone does something small that grows into something pretty big and amazing.”

Getting Students’ Attention

One of the biggest challenges the Sustainability department faces is simply gaining students’ attention.

“This office competes for attention and everyone has their own agenda,” Ochoa says. “Within this campus saturated with messages and events, we try to reach students by working with student leaders.”

At the UofA, the Sustainability department and housing work together to find creative ways of improving sustainability on campus and getting students, faculty and staff involved through scholarships, competitions and interactive improvements. It is all focused around making environmentally friendly choices more rewarding, Hamilton says.

Bringing in psychologists, and those in more humanitarian or liberal arts fields, to tackle these environmental issues is a fast-growing trend, but not an altogether new one, Hamilton says.

“It is picking up a lot of steam,” he said. “Colleges all around are hiring psychologists and individuals in humanities to actually work in sustainability departments. You have to appeal to people. You can’t just hit people with hard science, we need people that know people to make them applicable.”

Even those not looking for a career in sustainability can benefit from the courses, both in future jobs and in their personal lives, says Gronendyke.

“They usually have to hire an expert in a certain field and then teach them the sustainability aspects. Every business is trying to be more environmentally friendly and also cut costs,” she says. “It also just helps you seem creative solutions and look at issues from points of views beyond just your expertise, and that helps you in many aspects of life.”

This article first appeared in the Arkansas Traveler in January 2015 and is used with permission.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Ashton Eley is a staff writer at the Arkansas Traveler, the University of Arkansas' award-winning student newspaper.

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