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Sustainably growing a common experience

Next year's Common Experience Project to focus on sustainability

Picture a campus where students from every major are introduced to sustainability issues and concepts - plant biology students engaged in service learning help at the Athens Farmer’s Market, business students provide entrepreneurial advice to facilitate the success of local green businesses, and student publications provide in-depth coverage on everything from the local slow food movement to advances made by engineering professors in green technology.

Ohio University Common Experience Project hopes to achieve this through next year’s theme - sustainability. This theme will be active for three years, carrying through the 2014-2015 school year.

David Descutner, dean of the University College and executive vice provost for undergraduate studies, recognizes the many advantages of this theme, not least of which is that every discipline, from the humanities to the natural sciences, can address sustainability in some way in its courses.

“We want to launch the theme with courses that many freshmen take, such as first-year composition, public speaking and the seminars associated with learning communities. And we will encourage all students to consider choosing from the abundant array of other courses at every level that touch on sustainability,” he said.

This will be the first time that the Common Experience Project will be primarily led and guided by faculty. Indeed, Director of Composition Albert Rouzie suggested sustainability as the theme, thinking that the subject could be incorporated readily into the curriculum because of its wide appeal.

“Sustainability is a term that is a lot less threatening than environmentalism,” said Rouzie. “It has that aura about it as a word. People, for better or worse, can interpret it in different ways. That is one of the benefits of it.”

Sustainability is already a focus of many University programs, making the transition to a sustainability-based Common Experience all the easier. The Kanawha Project is one such program that has paved the way for the new experience.

Loraine McCosker and Nancy Manring started the sustainability-focused faculty learning community five years ago with funds from an 1804 Grant.

This community has given the Common Experience Project a five-year head start, as the Kanawha Project has already connected with a diverse cross-section of professors on the Athens and regional campuses.

“Loraine and Nancy are bringing in a wonderful wealth of resources, information, and experiences that they know work with the faculty here at Ohio University,” said Director of Sustainability Annie Laurie Cadmus. “They are also aware of how to approach them, the best ways to get resources to them and how to package those resources.”

McCosker and Manring are finding ways to use OHIO's physical and intellectual resources sustainably.

“We have students from all different disciplines attending OU, but the foundation is that these students should have a basic understanding of ecological principles, the idea of sustainability, and how they can integrate that into their careers and their lives when they leave OU,” said McCosker.

Although the focus of the Common Experience project will be in the classroom, this academic space is not where the project is expected to remain. It is hoped that the new theme will encourage professors to take students outside the classroom to gain hands-on experience with the material presented in class.

“We want to figure out how to use the campus to our benefit. [The campus] is our classroom too,” said McCosker.

Service learning is one of the goals of the project because of its direct application and hands on learning.

“It teaches people that they don’t have to be afraid of these principles, that they are a part of everyday life,” said McCosker

Cadmus echoed the thought.

“I see this project as a wonderful ripple effect for students to activate themselves and get involved in the community because student involvement is a huge factor in advancing sustainability,” said Cadmus.

Though sustainability has been a focus for Ohio University and an institutional goal, many students have not had the chance to encounter it directly.

“I think it's going to open peoples’ eyes to a topic that they didn’t know they were already connected to, and then they are going to find the different channels through which they can actually get involved,” said Cadmus.

Descutner added, “One of the distinguishing strengths of an Ohio University education is that students are encouraged to apply what they learn, to put theory into practice, and this new common experience project exemplifies the benefits of such an approach.”