Before becoming president of The University of Texas at Austin, William Powers Jr. chaired a task force examining the university’s undergraduate core curriculum. The task force issued sweeping recommendations to enhance student-teacher interaction, rigor and academic community.
One of the first recommendations to be tested was a suggestion undergraduates take mandatory “signature courses,” interdisciplinary classes that connect freshmen with the university’s most engaging professors and provide a common academic experience.
Jay Banner, a geochemistry professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences and director of the Environmental Science Institute, and Dave Allen, a chemical engineering professor with expertise in air quality and energy efficiency, won the honor of creating the university’s first signature course. “Sustaining a Planet” debuted in the fall of 2006 with 210 students. The course was a hit, and Banner and Allen have teamed up again to teach it this fall.
“Dave comes at sustainability from the engineered world,” said Banner. “I come at it from the natural world—how our water resources can be made sustainable, how natural water systems work, and how the climate system works, all from a geological perspective.”
The course went beyond traditional lectures and exams to keep students interested and get them to think more deeply about the material. Students went on field trips, produced a portfolio on an environmental topic, played games that highlighted key concepts and tracked how the media reports on environmental issues.
For one activity, students were asked to find a song that relates to an environmental, geological, or sustainability issue. Students played their songs for the class and gave a presentation on the issues it addressed. Some even composed and performed their own original songs.
“I was really surprised at how many hip hop songs talk about the environment,” said Banner. “My favorite that a student came up with is from Mos Def. He wrote a song called ‘New World Water.’ It’s about how we’re running out of water, how there’s going to be a whole new landscape, that everyone is going to have to have their own private water tank.