To go green, community leaders need fresh ideas. To make classes relevant, professors need connections to community leaders. To get jobs, sustainability-minded students want real-world experience.
Penn State connects all those green dots—and everyone comes out ahead.
The town-and-gown collaboration works like this:
The university’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) reaches out to communities to learn their sustainability projects wish lists. Next, the SCC works as a broker, matching up community needs with professors who teach appropriate classes. Then, those teachers guide their students, who dive head first into solving specific sustainability issues.
Through the SCC’s matchmaking, projects landed in the Community Environment & Development Integrated Capstone Experience class. Senior Ana Maria Greenberger and four classmates spent spring semester working as consultants to the university’s neighbor, the Borough of State College.
Their challenge: evaluating the Borough’s year-old curbside composting initiative.
“They wanted to know how residents were feeling about the program and what improvements they could make,” Greenberger said. Her group held meetings with Borough staff at their offices, then brainstormed during class time. Occasionally, they asked their professors for guidance.
“The way we taught, it was to be hands-off. We wanted the students to think things through,” said Professor Timothy Kelsey, who co-taught the class.
Greenberger’s group divided the work to conquer the challenge. “Some of us worked on writing questions for the survey, others on how to deliver it. One person was the contact for the Borough so everything funneled through him or her,” she said.
Their work impressed Courtney Hayden, the Borough’s communication and special project coordinator. “We’ve had professional consultants who didn’t do work as well as the students. They wanted to learn. They pushed us to ask additional questions we hadn’t thought about.”
“She treated us like we were normal clients, and not like we were students who didn’t know what we were talking about. She made us feel important,” Greenberger said.
The students sent out links to their survey to 1,400 residents via postcards and email.
“They received about 500 responses. That’s about a 33% response rate–very good,” said Kelsey, an agricultural economist.
The results showed that wintertime presents composting challenges, with food and green scraps freezing in compost bins. And residents needed large bins in summer to hold yard waste.
“We made recommendations to switch out to smaller-sized bins in the winter. And we said that people should line their carts with cardboard. Making sure the waste is covered helps with the freezing issue,” Greenberg said.
The students also learned that the Borough’s website frustrated residents. The team suggested including specific information on what should and shouldn’t be composted.
At the end of the semester, the students delivered their suggestions in a 10-minute presentation to the Borough’s Council members in their chambers.
“It was so different than normal group projects that you give to professor and then nothing happens. This is a chance to make a real change with the Borough,” Greenberger said.
In SCC’s first full academic year, 181 students worked in 10 classes on 12 projects, ranging from encouraging bicycle-related tourism to sustaining quality neighborhoods. Teachers hail from a variety of academic backgrounds, from business to psychology to architecture.
“Communities have a lot of different sustainability challenges,” said Nancy Franklin, Penn State’s Director of Programs and Partnerships at the Sustainability Institute. “Some of those come with technical flavors that need harder, physical sciences for solutions. But they might have more people-oriented dimensions too.”
“The bottom line is what the community wants,” Kelsey said. “To be practical, you have to start with the end user and what are their end needs and find these answers.”
The Borough is pleased.
“Through the Collaborative’s work, we’re giving students a better opportunity,” Hayden said. “You only get that by getting support from the university in your town, like the SCC gives.”
Franklin hopes the SCC can expand its main campus’ work to include broader, regional issues. And she aims to replicate the program throughout Penn State’s 26-campus system.
“I’d like to see this happen in other places,” senior Greenberger said. “To be able to participate made me feel that I’m happy I chose this major and to be able to be part of it is really, really important.”
For more information, visit sustainability.psu.edu.