Environmental Connections: Green starts here

by Jeff Shelman

The topic of conversation on this early December afternoon was pumpkin ice cream, a dessert that summed up many of the conflicts that go along with making environmental change.

In Environmental Connections, the gateway course for Augsburg’s new environmental studies major, history professor Michael Lansing and political science professor Joe Underhill take an issue and break it down over a semester. In fall 2007, the topic was water. This past fall, a dozen Augsburg students looked at food and just how it ends up on our plates.

At the end of the semester, the Environmental Connections students had to take what they learned and plan a menu for a lunch that was served in the Christensen Center Commons. Nutrition and taste were important to the students. But so were environmentally friendly practices, the use of vegetables grown in the Augsburg greenhouse, and supporting local farmers and companies.

And that led to the lengthy discussion about whether they should serve pumpkin ice cream from Kemps or buy it from Izzy’s, a St. Paul ice cream shop. The students knew they wanted the Izzy’s because the ice cream is made with organic products and the shop uses solar power. But there was the issue with price. Kemps wasn’t as environmentally friendly, but the students could get more ice cream at a lower price.

Because while it’s easy for people to say that they want to take environmental concerns into consideration when making decisions, the tone sometimes changes when being green is more expensive. In the end, the class reached a compromise and would get ice cream from both.

“That discussion was everything the class was about,” says Kathy DeKrey, a first-year student from Bemidji, Minn. “I thought we should have put up the cost and got just the Izzy’s ice cream.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to put forth the initial costs to make good decisions and that is too bad.”

It was the kind of broad, big-picture thinking that the professors hope comes out of this interdisciplinary class. Because things like food, water, and energy— a potential topic for next year—impact so many parts of society, Underhill and Lansing bring in guest lecturers from departments across campus.

Studying the urban environment

Here’s what you won’t find in Augsburg’s new environmental studies major: a windmill suddenly being constructed in the middle of Cedar-Riverside, repeated trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and anything that could be considered rural.

“That’s not what we want,” Lansing says. “That’s not who we are.”

The term “environmental” is often equated with rural, with wetlands, and with ecosystems. But Lansing and Underhill are much more interested in making an impact on and around campus. After all, the Mississippi River is only a few blocks away. There is a Superfund site in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood because of high amounts of pesticides and herbicides previously produced there. The local Sierra Club office is just across Interstate 94 in the Seward neighborhood.

Students in both the water and the food classes took the light rail to downtown Minneapolis to learn about the impact of St. Anthony Falls. For the initial class, the falls demonstrated the importance of water in relation to the creation of energy. Last semester, the falls taught about the milling process and the history of Minneapolis.

In addition to being a vehicle for teaching, studying environmental issues in an urban environment creates opportunity. “If you’re interested in the wilderness and studying ecosystem dynamics, this probably isn’t the right program,” Underhill says. “But if you want to do something on human impact, you have to be where the people are. Humans are having a huge impact so we have to spend time where the most people are.”

In the water class, the students constructed rain gardens on the Augsburg campus. The gardens are positioned to collect water runoff from campus buildings. In addition to adding plant life to campus, the rain gardens keep runoff water from eventually reaching the Mississippi River.

Getting students out of the classroom and getting their hands, quite literally, dirty very much fits into the experiential teaching Augsburg is known for.

“We want students to be aware of their immediate surroundings,” Lansing says. “We don’t want to put them in a sealed classroom and learn about grand theories while ignoring what’s going on around them.”

Changing attitudes

Peter Klink is in his first year at Augsburg after taking classes a year ago at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He always had an interest in the outdoors, but he didn’t really know just how complex food is.

“Most cows are fed corn hay because it gets them fat quicker, but it’s not as good for people,” Klink says. “But if you stop feeding them corn hay and feed them grass, the corn industry is hurt. Whatever you do, it impacts something.”

Klink, who grew up in Stillwater, Minn., found his habits as a consumer changing as the semester progressed. His biggest change—the result of learning about the environmental cost of transporting food across country—has been to make a greater effort to buy locallygrown food.

“I want to know where it comes from,” Klink says. “Also, it’s a way to support local businesses. The way the economy is, I’m all about supporting local businesses rather than some big corporation.”

Because the Environmental Connections class is a gateway course and largely for first-year students and sophomores, the students enter at different points.

“Clearly the most satisfying thing is when they start with no clue and as the semester goes on, the light bulb starts to come on,” Underhill says.

The environmental studies major—which will feature classes from a variety of departments on campus—is very much in its infancy at Augsburg. While the curriculum has been approved and the requirements laid out, simply offering a major doesn’t guarantee student interest.

In addition to providing a base of knowledge, the gateway course also shows students with interest in the environment some of the possibilities that are out there, that an environmental studies major isn’t limited to a job in nature or working as some sort of scientist.

“There’s a lot of green stuff that’s going to be used in the future,” says Klink, who is going to major in business and at least minor in environmental studies. “I think there is going to be a lot of opportunities for jobs in that area. There’s wind energy, solar energy, green architecture. To have a background where you understand that is a key thing.”

And getting students on the path toward understanding is what the Environmental Connections class is all about.

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