Grants given to design green courses

GW is offering cash incentives for professors to build courses to prop up the new sustainability minor.

Six professors picked up grants last spring, totaling $15,000 and leading to six new courses in the University’s first cross-disciplinary undergraduate program.

Professors can use the funds to buy books, attend conferences or purchase materials like videos for the classroom, said Meghan Chapple-Brown, the director of the Office of Sustainability.

“The focus has been around getting the minor off the ground, and the introduction course in particular, and encouraging proliferation of green leaf courses so there are more options for students to tailor their minor to the way they want to tailor it,” Chapple-Brown said.

The University will offer five grants for the next three years as its minor gets off the ground and staff shape a long-term vision of an undergraduate degree or graduate certificate, Academic Director of Sustainability Lisa Benton-Short said. So far, the grants have funded five new classes for next spring and one this semester.

She said she hopes the grants will lead to “green leaf courses” – designated courses with an environmental focus – in subjects like business and public health to tie into the University’s academic strengths. GW offers 100 undergraduate sustainable, “green leaf” courses, up from 60 in 2010.

“As a university, our reputation is already that we’re helping to influence policy makers, and so we want to do the same around sustainability,” Benton-Short said.

All professors can apply to add a green leaf to their existing courses if they relate to sustainability, but Benton-Short said the grants will provide an extra incentive to create new courses and feed the minor’s growth. Fourteen professors vied for the grants last spring.

The grants helped fuel the program’s flagship course, Introduction to Sustainability, which filled its 100-seat capacity. It is taught by six professors from across the University.

A total of 22 students have declared green minors in its first semester offered this fall, as of Friday, but the sustainability office directors believe more interest will spring up as academic programs expand.

“We need more teachers – more courses developed, and that takes a while,” Benton-Short added.

One of the professors, Peter Lapuma, also secured a grant to steer a new course on sustainable energy and environmental health that will look at the long-term effects of fossil fuel consumption and alternative energies.

Lapuma said the program is finally taking shape 14 years after since he started teaching a green design course. But he sees the challenges in building up programs centered on sustainability.

“I am not sure I see sustainability as a concrete field,” he said. “I think economics and geology and law are fields of study. I see sustainability instead as a way of thinking.”

Sustainability coursework and programs have been a top priority for University President Steven Knapp since he came to GW in 2007.

Provost Steven Lerman has highlighted the interdisciplinary field, which mixes parts of geography, science, economics, law and public health, and serves as a pilot for more cross-subject courses down the road. The University’s strategic plan, previewed to faculty last week, emphasized more courses that lie across disciplines.

History professor Christopher Klemek is designing the University’s first environmental history class. He already teaches the history department’s only green leaf course – U.S. Urban History.

The new class will include up to 40 students next semester, and will focus on the relationship between human societies and natural systems.

The GW Law School and the College of Professional Studies have also rallied around green programs. The law school nabbed a half-million dollar grant in August to expand its offerings in energy law, and the graduate school added a sustainable urban planning program last year.

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