UA sustainability minor garnering major attention

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 125 views 

FAYETTEVILLE – The oil industry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of environmentally responsible businesses. Todd Knobbe may change that someday.

Knobbe, a University of Arkansas junior from Dallas, is one of a hundred UA students to declare the university’s new minor in foundations of sustainability. The minor program, which its co-director says pairs well with most majors, started in the fall 2011 semester.

Knobbe is a geology major and hopes to one day work in the oil and gas industry.

“We need to find ways to keep equilibrium, to find a better way so we don’t dig ourselves a grave that we can’t get out of,” Knobbe said.

Some of the students in the minor program believe it will be their generation that will take green living to the next level. The program’s co-director agrees.

“This is important because we’re a public university and, quite frankly, it’s something they (students) wanted,” said Stephen Boss, sustainability minor co-director and an associate professor of geosciences. “One class has 150 students in it. The demand is there. The students want this. This is really the generation that’s pushing this forward.”

The sustainability minor program grew from student interest and the UA’s pledge to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. In 2007, the UA became one of the first 100 signatories of the Climate Commitment, which, among other things, advocates infusing sustainability topics into the curriculum.

Haleigh Smith of Rogers, a senior horticulture major, said students are enthusiastic about the sustainability program.

“Everyone involved wants it to be a major (degree program),” Smith said.

Jonathan Keating from Kansas City, Mo., thought the program was unique to this region and was excited when he discovered it. In fact, the second-year student decided to transfer to Fayetteville, in part, because of the program.

“You don’t find it at many schools,” Keating said. He’s in the introductory course, Foundations of Sustainability, which touches on several broad sustainability concepts.

“The course is cool,” Keating said. Four teachers teach different segments of the course, Keating said, which delves into sustainability of social systems, natural systems, built systems (architecture and engineering), and managed systems (agriculture and business).

Keating said he’ll take one more course before he decides what his area of emphasis will be, although he’s currently interested in the built systems, which focus on how architecture affects the environment and sustainability.

“I’m really excited to get deeper into it. I definitely think it’s kind of a big deal with the current issues,” Keating said.

Boss said the minor is accessible to every student and easy to pick up. It only began in the fall, but 20 seniors incorporated the 18-hour program into their schedules and will complete the minor requirements this month. They completed a capstone project either via an internship, a service learning opportunity, or a research project. The students had to do either a poster to show what their project was about or make a presentation.

“They’re pretty impressive,” Boss said of the students’ projects. “There are some really creative ideas they’ve come up with. They’re broad and diverse. It would be hard to categorize them. They’re all pretty terrific.”

One hundred other students have already declared the new program as their minor, Boss said.

“I think this is something that’s pretty personal for the students. They’re engaged and want a better future. It’s their future,” Boss said.

Boss said every major is relevant to sustainability efforts and would work well with the minor. “It really is across all disciplines. It’s marketable.”

Jordan Miller, a sophomore from Fayetteville, is also a horticulture major. She is enrolled in the introductory foundations class. She is one of the students involved in GroGreen, the university’s community garden project. But her interest in plants extends beyond food production.

“I’d really like to go into phytopharmaceuticals,” Miller said, “with an emphasis on ethnobotany.”

“Sometimes humans, instead of using synthetics, can use the natural resources God has given us,” Miller said.

Knobbe, who last week on campus helped collect signatures to get a natural gas severance tax put on the ballot,  said he wants to help the oil and gas industry become more environmentally sound. He thinks the classes he will take as part of the minor program will help him.

Smith said the minor is set up so students learn at least a little about all aspects of sustainability in the beginning class.

“It’s where the whole world has to go to whether they want to or not,” Smith said.

Smith, formerly a business major, decided she didn’t want to use chemical pesticides and other synthetic products. She believes a minor in sustainability will help her work in a chemical-free manner.

Keating is majoring in small business and entrepreneurship and eventually wants to start his own business or go into business with his father, a realtor.

“Sustainability is a movement that’s gained momentum in the last 10 years,” Keating said. “The green label is good marketing.”

He said he tends to look more favorably on businesses which ascribe to green sensibilities, and believes others of his generation do, too. For example, he tried to rent an apartment at a complex which advertised its sustainability efforts but it already was fully booked – with a waiting list.

“I think people take it into account when they make a purchase or make living choices,” Keating said.

Keating is also involved with the Student Sustainability Council. On this particular day, he had participated in a bicycle awareness event on campus.

“Ultimately, we want to encourage the school to build more bike lanes and make the campus more bike friendly,” he said.

If more students register their bikes on campus, administrators will see the need to improve bicycle programs, such as installing more bike racks.

Keating said he thinks everyone should focus on sustainability, although he doubts society will ever be completely sustainable. Keating said he was surprised when he came to the university by how progressive Fayetteville is.

“It’s worth focusing our energy on. We’ve only got one planet. We might as well leave it nice for generations to come,” Keating said. “This is my first year here and the first year for the program. I feel like I found my niche.”

Dr. Tahir Messadi, assistant professor of architecture, is the program’s other co-director.