State College, Penn State collaborate on sustainability initiative

For the CDTMay 2, 2014 

The latest partnership between State College and Penn State focuses on being environmentally conscious.

The 2013-14 pilot program of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative has a goal of developing a relationship between Penn State and the surrounding community in which the university’s existing courses can be used to assist sustainability projects, according to its website.

Teresa Shupp, who manages the collaborative, said the borough outlines its series of environmental priorities and most are turned into specific projects.

Shupp said she takes the projects or issues presented by the borough and finds faculty whose priorities and classes overlap.

“I bring the faculty and borough together to work through and see if it’s going to be a good project for class,” she said.

Psychology professor Janet Swim’s Psych 490 class is an example. The class is “designed for senior students to integrate what they’ve learned across their four years,” Swim said.

She said the borough is interested in increasing the number of households that use renewable energy.

While psychology may not seem like a fit when it comes to sustainability, Swim’s class is looking at the science behind the community’s desire to use more environmentally friendly energy sources.

Swim said her students are studying community-based social marketing and “looking at it from a community perspective and a psychological perspective.”

“Most people have various degrees of interest, so we wanted to understand these motives,” she said.

The goal is not to motivate people to use renewable energy but rather to get them to act on something they’re already motivated to do.

Also, Swim said, people do not necessarily know how to sign up for alternate energy sources and do not always think they have the resources to do so.

“Our goal is to understand how they can do it and (if) we can make it easier,” she said.

“If you know how to do it and you want to do it, you just have to be prompted to do it,” she said.

To gauge how many community members are interested in renewable energy sources, Swim’s class created a survey that gathered information to represent homeowners and their thoughts on renewable energy. About 40 percent of the people in a random sample of the community responded to the survey, Swim said.

Swim said her class also is putting together a flier with the collected information, because her class found that most people would like to receive their information that way.

Along with the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, the university offers another way for students to learn about the environment with its sustainability leadership minor, begun in the summer of 2012.

Faculty from several Penn State colleges and campuses manage the minor, which is open to students with any major.

The minor offers a range of choices from among the university’s colleges and allows students to integrate several types of sustainability themes into their coursework. Courses range from psychology to recreation, park and tourism management.

The director of the academic programs at the Sustainability Institute, Susannah Barsom, said in an email that about 70 students are enrolled in the minor from eight academic colleges.

“There is not a sustainability ‘type’ of student,” Barsom wrote. “These are students who understand the serious environmental and social problems that we face and want to find ways to address these problems in their professional and personal lives.”

“Interest in the minor is growing, and the foundational course, SUST 200, is being offered at more campuses each year,” Barsom said. “Recent graduates have reported that their work in the minor was a factor in getting the jobs they have now.”

Paulina Cajigal is a Penn State journalism student.

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