Students chime in on sustainability issues

While Portland State is known for making sustainability a part of its curriculum and the campus environment, do students have enough of a say in how sustainability is incorporated into their college experience?

While Portland State is known for making sustainability a part of its curriculum and the campus environment, do students have enough of a say in how sustainability is incorporated into their college experience?

Several PSU student groups are hoping to up the ante.

Solutions Generator, a program sponsored by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, awarded funds to student activists for conducting a series of focus groups under the title “Sustainability and the Undergraduate Experience.”

Five to eight such focus groups are slated to be conducted over the next couple of months, trimmed down from the original proposal of 10–20 groups. They are currently awaiting approval from the Human Subjects Research Review Committee.

Will Wright, a senior majoring in community development and the project’s leader, said an early goal will be to learn where students are right now with campus sustainability.

“[The project] is a chance to get a better understanding—a baseline—of how students experience sustainability and [to] ask what they want as students,” he said.

According to a summary of the project on the ISS website, the project hopes to draw from PSU’s diverse student body.

“[The] project will identify current levels of sustainability literacy, areas where students see PSU’s sustainability efforts and areas where they feel interventions could be useful and effective,” according to the summary.

Wright said he hopes to engage students at every step of the project. From participation in the focus groups, recruitment and note-taking to analyzing the collected data, students will be taking charge.

At the end of spring term the group will compile its findings in a report presented to ISS.

The project also includes a component for developing a “repeatable process” whereby student voices can continue to play an active role in the future. This will be in the form of a template to be submitted with the final report.

Jane Carr, a doctoral student in public affairs and policy, said in an email: “I think the most important piece is helping our faculty and administrators understand better where students are in [regard to] their knowledge about and interest in sustainability.

“Their job is both to respond to our educational needs and also push us beyond where we imagine it’s possible to go,” she continued. “To do this, they need good, solid data about where the student body stands.”

Carr summarized the philosophy behind the project in terms of student initiative.

“I think higher education pays way more attention to the particulars of what we know, rather than who we are as educated people. I see a need for more balance in terms of students having more educational experiences that help them map out who and how they want to be in the world,” she said.

Wright and Carr are joined on this project by Laura Kutner, a PSU student pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. All have experience working in sustainability, ranging from volunteering for the Peace Corps to natural resource management and participation in the Student Sustainability Leadership Council on campus. They had all worked together prior to creating the Solutions Generator team.

Kutner specializes in academic sustainable development.

“I hope to incorporate my passion for sustainable development into the focus groups, particularly in making sure that sustainability is understood and accessible to students from all different backgrounds and walks of life,” she said in an email.

Carr’s focus is on leadership development. She wants to know if students would be interested in a curriculum that helps them become the kinds of leaders necessary to create a more sustainable society.

Wright comes to the project with experience in group facilitation. That background helped inspire the focus groups. Wright explained that he prefers conversation over surveys, though the latter will be instrumental to the project as well.

The idea of the focus groups is to create a polyphony of differing voices. Kutner said, “[The biggest challenge is] finding students to participate [who] exemplify the diversity of the student body here at PSU.”

The group hopes to employ several recruitment tactics, including using email list-serves, approaching student groups, passing out flyers and employing word-of-mouth. They are offering incentives for participation in the form of small gift cards.

Students who wish to become involved can contact Wright at [email protected].