First signature course is a hit with students

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 worldhow 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.

"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.