The University of Texas at Austin
  • First signature course is a hit with students

    By Marc Airhart
    Marc Airhart
    Published: Nov. 29, 2007

    “When the hip hop community, which seems to me is very inward looking, starts singing about a water crisis, this is a sign that we may not be in very good shape.”

    Victor Camacho was a sophomore economics major in the Sustaining a Planet pilot course.

    “My path coming into UT was going to be economics all the way, just business stuff, but I really like the hands on activities [in this course],” said Camacho. “In fact, I’m thinking about going into environmental sciences or geological sciences.”

    Banner and Allen had the students create portfolios on a theme or topic, such as sustainable management of the oceans or how to make the university campus more sustainable. The students followed their topics through the news media, took field trips, read books and attended special lectures to build up a portfolio. At the end, they wrote reflection essays to summarize what they had learned and how the experience might have changed their views of an issue.

    “The students design this themselves and it gets them to think that they need to be active participants in their own education at the earliest possible stage in their academic career here at the university,” Allen said.

    Another activity was the Greenhouse Gas Experiment, where students learned about the greenhouse effect in class, then predicted the impact on the temperature of a model Earth atmosphere when carbon dioxide was introduced into it. A group of these students then demonstrated the experiment to the public at an Outreach Lecture by climate scientist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Local television news station KXAN covered the demonstration, which used vinegar and baking soda to produce CO2, a lamp, a temperature probe and a terrarium.

    Science and technology are the primary lenses the course uses to look at sustainability. But the students also explore it from the standpoint of public policy, the media and economics through guest lectures from professors in those disciplines and group discussions.

    “If there’s a single most important thing that students come away with from this course it may not be details and the facts and figures about how the Earth works and the environmental challenges we face,” said Banner. “It would be even more valuable if they came away from this course instilled with this critical way of asking questions, collecting data and finding out for themselves where to find data that can answer their questions.”

    A full slate of signature courses will begin in 2010, with all incoming freshmen required to take two such courses before graduation.

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