In Spring Sustainability Course, Students Choose Their Own Green Adventure

By Maggie Haslam / Dec 2, 2022

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Aerial shot of solar panels at UMD
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Photo courtesy of: John T. Consoli, University of Maryland

For the undecided college student, elective classes at a big university can open doors to new interests, majors, even future professions. But for students looking for a paycheck that also positively impacts the planet, one University of Maryland spring elective trades textbooks for talks on tracking sea level rise, reducing food waste and designing smarter ways to commute.

"Sustainability at College Park" introduces students to a rotating cast of characters that landed in sustainably minded careers through a long-running, popular lecture series called “Sustainable Tuesdays.” It’s career day on steroids with a green bent: faculty specializing in climate science and advancements in nuclear energy intermingle with staff and administrators who oversee UMD’s biodiverse landscapes and plot the campus solar roofs. The course cuts a broad swath of sustainability subjects, but it emphasizes the work behind the university’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2025.

“To achieve such an ambitious goal requires an eclectic mix of people all actively committed to helping the university reach their targets,” said Professor Emeritus Ralph Bennett, who designed the course almost 15 years ago to showcase the sustainability work happening on campus. “Some of these positions probably didn’t exist a decade ago.”

Susan Corry, director of energy and engineering for UMD’s Facilities Management has joined Bennett’s class for the past several years to discuss the monumental task of buying power for what equates to a small city, and the strides her team has made to ensure it comes from sustainable power sources.

“One of the first questions I ask students is how much they think our campus spends on utilities; the range of guesses is amazing,” she said. “Energy is one of those things that’s not on people’s radar until the power goes out.”

Bennett hopes speakers like Corry, who quietly work behind the scenes to make Maryland a leader in sustainable campus communities, highlight the many niche career options for students looking to go green.

“These are jobs that the average student might not know about, but they are vital for pushing climate change goals forward,” he says. “Many of the speakers never thought they’d be doing what they are doing now. I always tell students, if you’re not sure what you want to do, you may find some interesting options in this course.”

In addition to lectures, students perform a deep dive on a topic of their choosing, from solar energy to vertical farming, giving them the chance to investigate and become well-versed in a sustainability topic of interest. The course, which is offered through the Architecture Program, is a general elective open to all students; typically, just one-third of students are majoring in architecture, with the remaining coming from across campus, including arts and letters, history, engineering, communications and business. Many of Bennett’s students are freshman and sophomores who haven’t yet figured out their course of study.

“There was a woman who came in to talk with us whose primary job was to manage rainwater and I thought, you can do that?” said sophomore Edan Miller, a letters and science major now interested in engineering. “There was so much to take away from that class, whether its learning about new fields or learning the different things happening on campus. It was amazing to see all the options.”

And while the course caps at around 80 students, the lecture series, which runs every Tuesday in Spring at 5PM in the Architecture Auditorium, is open to everyone.

“We have a great time,” says Bennett. “And there are plenty of seats!”

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