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Living and Learning at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability
The folks at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability really rolled out the red green carpet for Sarah and me when we met them on a hot Friday afternoon. Through conversations with the school’s key players and highly personalized tours of their facilities and features, they walked us through every step the university has taken to join the ranks of the world’s leading environmental pioneers and thinkers.
With LEED certified buildings, the nation’s only sustainability degree programs for both undergraduate and post-grad students, as well as solar panels and windmills peppered throughout the campus, it’s easy to see how they became the flagship institution for green practices in academia, and those are just the features Sarah and I saw as we were zipped through the campus in an electric golf cart.
It quickly became obvious that ASU takes higher education’s commitment to fostering creativity, independent thought and collaboration very seriously, and they’ve tied each one of these tenets to the core principles of environmental responsibility. For example, the school itself, housed in the university’s old nursing building, was completely renovated not only with the latest environmental features, but also with a mind toward nurturing growth through exchange of ideas. Walls were torn down or moved to allow sunlight to flow naturally through the building, and inviting informal meeting areas are spread liberally throughout the school so students can meet and chat comfortably.
The entire university is viewed as a living organism with its own metabolism, and this attitude is contagious, changing the way the students view their school and how it is affected by their own actions. Clearly this approach has paid off, as many of the students’ own original ideas about best green practices and design have been tried out in a real-world environment. The phrase “living laboratory” was used frequently to describe ASU’s sustainability experiments, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next big environmental innovation didn’t come from a casual conversation between classes at one of these collaborative spaces.
Here are the leaders of both GIOS and the School of Sustainability talking to us about the work they’ve done, their objectives and what is on the horizon:
Wrapping our heads around the complicated — and at times, abstract — consequences our actions have on the planet can be a challenge, and in these cases, new approaches to facilitate understanding need to be tried. This is where ASU’s Decision Theater comes in. Decision Theater is perhaps the premier example of ASU’s commitment to design environments conducive to collaboration, creativity and understanding.
The theater’s executive director, George Basile, Ph. D., spoke passionately about this commitment, and how actually seeing ideas represented visually can help anyone easily understand the urgency of today’s most complicated environmental challenges. Basile and Lisa Faiss, the assistant director of integrated urban solutions, led us into “the drum,” a theater surrounded with huge screens intended to represent ideas, theories and situational models visually.
We were treated to a presentation on Phoenix’s dwindling water supply and potential scenarios that could play out depending on what the area’s leaders and citizens do to deal with this issue. (I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say it’s going to take some real drastic changes for Phoenix to become a truly sustainable city.)
Can this model of visualization really help a non-expert understand an issue so multi-faceted? We posed this question to Jewel, an undergrad working at Decision Theater. Jewel told us that after she was shown this presentation, she stopped shaving her legs with the shower on and that she has been educating her fellow students about the effect their habits have the area’s water supply. We’ll take that as a “yes.”
“The university is only bounded by creativity,” Dr. Basile told us as our tour of Decision Theater ended. This sums up ASU’s philosophy beautifully, and since there is no limit to what the human mind can conceive in the right conditions, we can expect some great things from ASU’s inaugural sustainability graduates as they start applying all the new methods and theories they learned beyond the halls of academia and bring their message of hope and innovative ideas to the planet.