Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The year wrapped up

I think that we have some things to really be pleased with this semester, a good deal to look forward to doing together, and some areas where we might be able to focus our attention as we move forward. In this post I hope to post a bit of a reflection on this semester, where I think we are as a group, and what we might do in the future. As always, I hope that others will contribute feedback in the comments section.

This past semester, 3E-COE did some really cool things. Starting early I think that under Alex's leadership we gained some success in keeping the university's ear regarding plastic water bottle waste and our hope that we can get them banned at Penn State. Penn State does a much better job than most huge institutions and municipalities at recycling - 53% overall - but know that it simply isn't enough. Though the administrator's we have met with seem to eschew the idea of using "ban" language because it proscribes and chides instead of redirects, they listened and, to some degree, have worked with us. However, we know that in principle bans are possible. We've seen that other universities like Washington U. in St. Louis have already moved that way and that there is buzz at other state universities like SUNY Cortland. I was contacted by a student, Danny, at U. of Central Florida who, we hope, got some meetings with their Office of Physical Plant to move them towards less waste via a water bottle ban. If his figures are correct, their recycling rate was abominably low: under 20%.

As the semester wore on (and wore us down for sure) we came up with a teach-in plan that could have worked had we really been much more coordinated earlier. In retrospect, we might have done best by providing a bigger presence at Earth Day at Penn State and not tried to strike out on our own a litte later. That said, Jared's awesome pamphlets (see this earlier post) and the fliers (see this post) made for some good late-semester outreach that, at the very least, keeps some water bottle consciousness in the PSU zeitgeist. For sure next year we should join in with Eco-Action et al and make stronger and more concentrated pushes.

But at the meetings we had some really great opportunities this semester. We met some cool people who work with and for sustainability, ecological literacy, and the protection of our greatest resource - nature - in interesting ways. We met with the Social Justice Reading Group to discuss articles by David Orr, Anthony Weston, and Richard Kahn. By engaging them, we saw how far down the rabbit hole of sustainability we have yet to go and yet how committed we are to ecological justice as a sister to social justice. It is no small thing to realize that the economically and racially ghettoized people of the world - whether in the Tennessee Valley or along Love Canal or living adjacent to the Dow Chemical Plant in Bhopal, India - had their natural environments degraded by wealthy, powerful, and very "educated" people who operated with little or no conscience to all others' health or well-being.

Ali Turley from the Centre County Youth Service Bureau came to us and asked for our help maintaining a community and children's garden in some local Section 8 housing in Boalsburg. This is an effort to develop some communal sense in a place where families tend not to live for very long and where ethnic tensions can run high. Two of our members have been working on that and, we can hope, will provide us with some updates as the summer and fall move along.

We had Bob Burkholder come from the English department to talk to us about his various outdoor literature courses and show us how literature, history, forests, watersheds, rivers, shores, and oceans connect and interweave in one of the most noble of human endeavors - literature. For a view of his various adventure literature courses, go to his course website and take a peek. One of his stated goals is to "learn how wild places relate to literature, history, and philosophy." This seems much in line with what many of us want to do. He goes to Cape Cod, South Carolina, down the Chesapeake Watershed and into the Bay, and out into the wilderness (pictured at right). What can we do? What will you do with where you teach and live?

A couple of members of People Protecting Communities (PPC) who have been fighting the Rush Township landfill proposal for five years came and gave a fantastically detailed presentation on all of those goings on. It really brought home how understanding our bioregion and our governmental structure helps us to move forward. Civics teachers take note! And this, for me, led back to our discussion of social justice because the rich and well-connected people of Resource Recovery LLC have been able to continue a totally misguided and environmentally disastrous campaign to strong arm rural people without a lot of material wealth into accepting the uglification and poisoning of the land they live on, the air they breathe, and the water they drink. Luckily, the people at PPC are devoted, intelligent, diligent, and also very informed on governmental workings.

Finally, paleontologist and climate change researcher came and provided us with a brilliant primer on climate change. As a researcher he studies the last ice age, specifically how rodent species have locally gone extinct on forested land islands as the climate changed. In short, he seems to expect that as the climate warms that we will see populations of these high altitude rodent species like Red Backed Voles, Heather Voles, American Pika, and Collared Lemmings diminish or disappear. If you are so inclined, you can join our group on Penn State's ANGEL and download his Power Point presentations. As a teacher he brought in fossils for us to handle and see. Touching the fossilized bones of animals dead for tens of thousands of years really brings home to the hand how much we use our bodies to learn. In an educational world so bent on developing the gray matter between our ears by using language, this reminded me once again of the simple joy of kinesthetic learning. In a small way, "teaching went wild" for a few minutes.

So looking ahead for the coming year I see a few things on our horizon. First, I suspect that from some contacts in the community that we will be able to arrange meetings/observations of local teachers using their school gardens. I have been working toward getting the College of Education to get a teaching/learning garden put in but it is an extensive process. But the dean seems to believe it's a good idea in principle but that implementing it could be good. I know for a fact, though, that the student's of Madhu Prakash's EDTHP 440 - Philosophy of Education all signed a letter to the dean requesting a teaching garden. Nearly 30 of them signed it! Between the lot of us we might just get somewhere.

Sadly (but also awesomely!), the plots at the Center for Sustainability filled up almost instantly and we were wait-listed. While I am really sad that 3E-COE doesn't have a plot, I am overjoyed to see so much interest in something that we didn't know could be so huge. But other local municipalities are joining in. In fact, last night I was at my friend Aaron's house in Boalsburg and he showed me his plot in the Harris Township community garden. This is brilliant news!

In the summer we will continue to learn more about all numbers of things on our own and, perhaps for those of us still here, we can take a couple of excursions into the beautiful Pennsylvania wilderness and watersheds. In the fall I think we will refine and carry out our water bottle teach-in/protest at a much more intense level. I'm even considering a real sort of big room lecture format that the lot of us can work together on.

I am really looking forward to what we will do. It's been a good first year.

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