New course taps students' superpowers to understand campus sustainability

May 20, 2013

On our finite planet, everything is connected. But it can be hard to grasp these connections without first understanding the processes and science behind them.

A new undergraduate course at UW-Madison – Principles of Environmental Science, or Environmental Studies 126 – uses familiar concepts to teach students about such previously unfamiliar connections.

Cathy Middlecamp class
Carl Korz, assistant director for dining services with
the Wisconsin Union
, speaks with ES 126 students
about the Union's sustainability initiatives

Cathy Middlecamp, associate professor of environmental studies and Howe Bascom Professor of Integrated Liberal Studies, leads the course with the goal of reaching students who may not yet be interested in environmental studies.

“We’re not just studying sustainability; we’re trying to walk the talk of it,” Middlecamp says. “We’re looking at what’s worth doing, what might be worth doing and what we don’t yet know how to do. We’re putting it all in a context that’s real: our campus.”

This introductory class serves as a first step for students in understanding sustainability. By connecting coursework with building and grounds maintenance, heating and cooling, food service and other campus operations, students investigate the built environment of the university to better understand environmental initiatives happening all around them.

According to Middlecamp, many campus operations are “hidden in plain sight,” or virtually unnoticeable to those not actively looking. To draw students into this hidden world, Middlecamp framed the learning goals for the course within the concept of “superpowers” – an idea she credits to Nelson Institute graduate student and class teaching assistant Travis Blomberg.

These superpowers – X-ray vision, clairvoyance and the ability to speak to non-human objects – used in campus investigations throughout the semester, help students to develop their creative thinking skills and see the campus in a new light. The course focuses in two areas: energy used in buildings, vehicles and heating plants, and food choices, including campus dining operations.

“We want to give students new eyes to see with, new ears to hear with and new ways of imagining things that are connected,” Middlecamp says. “I want them to be able to see through walls, to hear those who walked the land before them, to imagine the voices of the future, and to converse with the wind, rain, animals and plants.”

“Framing superpowers as learning goals gives the students a creative approach to search for a deeper understanding of facts and figures,” adds Blomberg.

Cathy Middlecamp class with John Nelson
Adjunct professor John Nelson leads a tour of the
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery's environmental
features. T
he building is the first laboratory in
Wisconsin to receive LEED gold certification

A weekly three-hour lab places students in a range of contexts, from exploring the scientific aspects of sustainability in laboratory experiments to walking tours at key campus locations like the Walnut Street Heating and Cooling Plant.

To connect class lab experiments to campus operations, students gather their lab materials from UW dining halls, ending up with everything from cooking oil to fountain soda. According to Middlecamp, this turns the campus into a “living, learning laboratory.”

“In one lab, students are getting cooking oil from Chef Michael Pruett at Steenbock’s on Orchard to make biodiesel for campus vehicles,” Middlecamp says. “It’s only small amounts, but it’s the start of a larger conversation about energy efficiency.”

By alerting students to energy and sustainability issues on campus, Middlecamp believes students will be able to better understand and connect to larger issues in their community.

“We’ve got plenty of courses, on this campus and nationally, that teach through real-world issues to underlying principles,” Middlecamp says. “What I think makes this class new and different is the connecting of campus operations and the classroom into a place-based course.”

The course is funded in part by We Conserve, a campus-wide program dedicated to conservation and waste elimination, and by a UW-Madison Office of Sustainability grant as part of the Sustainability Innovation in Research Education program. Middlecamp and two other Nelson Institute-affiliated faculty – professors Holly Gibbs and Adrian Treves – were awarded funding to develop several new courses from a variety of sustainability perspectives.

“The things we’re interested in – energy and food – are interdisciplinary,” Middlecamp explains.

Today’s environmental challenges, she says, require transcending traditional divisional lines by thinking across multiple disciplines. And sometimes, they even require superpowers to see connections.