Training Students in Environmental Sustainability

Posted January 26, 2024, 11:35AM

While developing the skills and knowledge to find employment is essential, it is also important for students to learn the most environmentally sustainable way to live in the world.

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) offers two courses in what is sometimes called ‘environmental literacy,’ a term first published in an issue of Massachusetts Audubon in 1968.

Associate Professor Rakesh Malhotra, Ph.D., who teaches ENSC 1000: Introduction to the Sustainable Planet, defines environmental literacy as “living within our resources. Resources are limited.”

Introduction to the Sustainable Planet, which is for non-science majors, is a mix of classroom lectures and projects. On a recent Friday, students had to trace the path of electricity. “They had to walk back from the power plug to coal,” Malhotra said. “This electricity is coming from somewhere. It’s limited.”

And that, says Malhotra, can be the most difficult concept to get across to students.

“Everyone assumes you plug it in, and it works,” he said. “You start the car, and it works.”

Haven Norfleet, a sophomore majoring in political science, said she learned about the impact of global warming and its interconnectedness in Dr. Malhotra’s Introduction to the Sustainable Planet course. “The icebergs are melting into the ocean which is causing sea levels to rise and also interfering with water chemistry,” Norfleet said. “Icebergs don’t have salt, but the ocean does. Being warmer also effects animals.”

Sara Rugama Artola, a freshman who plans to major in political science, said she originally did not think she would enjoy the Introduction to the Sustainable Planetcourse. “It’s given me a deeper understanding of what sustainability really is,” Artola said.

For instance, she learned that paying for a hydroelectric plant is more likely to pay back the investment more quickly than investing in nonrenewable sources of energy. “I had this idea that all renewable energy was extremely expensive,” Artola said.

Assistant Professor Carresse Gerald, Ph.D., who teaches ENSC 2100: Global Environmental Sustainability for both science and non-science majors, defines environmental literacy as “the understanding of the environment and becoming a little more knowledgeable about the environment.”

The Global Environmental Sustainability course starts with basic science. The world is made up of atoms and matter. Ecosystems and their components. Earth, weather and sun.

Gerald also teaches about microorganisms and the nutrient cycle – even the less pleasant parts such as mosquitos.

Mosquitos are needed,” Gerald said. “They are part of the food chain, though mosquitos can be vectors for diseases such as malaria. I try to push the students to understand the intrinsic value of all parts of the ecosystem.”

Other topics include food production, water quality, toxicology and hazards, urbanization and industrialization.

“We touch on policy a good bit throughout the course: the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Super Fund. Population control, which really drives a lot of the issues we see.”

Global Environmental Sustainability includes laboratory research, guest speakers and projects, such as creating a poster of an eco-friendly home. Students maintain a food diary for three days with the aim of learning how they eat and how they could eat more sustainably.

Vy Nguyen, a graduate student in environmental earth and geospatial sciences, enrolled in Global Environmental Sustainability two years ago and is now a teaching assistant in the course. She describes learning about how human interactions effect nature as “eye opening.”

“We learned about the dustbowl in class from the over usage of soil, which created a lot of dust going into the atmosphere which spread from the middle of the United State to the East Coast,” Nguyen said. “We also learned about nutrition. There is a percentage of people in the world who are over-nourished. I grew up thinking it’s a United States problem. It’s a problem in all of the developed world.”

Tamarr Moore, who enrolled in the course in fall 2022, recalls discussing where a person lives can impact their health.

“A minority population will more likely be exposed to environmental disparities such as being near treatment plants, incineration, factories and water sources that are more likely to have contamination.”

Malhotra hopes the students leave his course with a greater level of understanding of the environment, recycling and energy. “They will have a better understanding of what is behind the science.”

“We have to live on this planet,” Gerald said. “To understand and fix some of the issues, we have to have some kind of environmental literacy.”

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