STARS as Capstone Project: How It Worked & What We Learned
This article is authored by Sarah Wald, an Assistant Professor of English and Environmental Studies & Sustainability at Drew University. Photo courtesy of Lynne DeLade.
In spring 2011, I taught Drew University’s first senior capstone course in our new Environmental Studies and Sustainability (ESS) major. Six graduating seniors with majors or minors in ESS ran Drew through STARS. At the end of the semester, the students organized a Sustainability Forum where they presented the results of the STARS survey, including Drew’s strengths and weaknesses, and provided their recommendations for making Drew University a more sustainable institution.
Having students complete STARS advanced its effectiveness as an outreach and advocacy tool. The report received more attention than it would have otherwise. Both the student newspaper and the Drew University website covered the forum. Drew University President Robert Weisbuch introduced the forum and the University Sustainability Committee, which promoted the event, considered the students’ recommendations during their next meeting. The event itself was well-attended by students, faculty, and staff.
Pedagogically, STARS was also invaluable. The students learned to work (and to write) collaboratively. Professionalization occurred as students contacted and then worked directly with staff to find the information they needed. This was a project that required students to take initiative. Moreover, students applied the knowledge they gained in previous courses as they decided whether or not Drew met the criteria for each credit and debated how important that credit was to Drew’s overall sustainability goals. Students consistently distinguished between institutional changes that would increase Drew’s STARS rating and the changes students felt were most essential to the University’s sustainability.
In terms of the class structure, the first several weeks we read widely about sustainability and students worked collaboratively to develop their own definition of sustainability. During the bulk of the semester, students set up meetings with staff, read available university documents, and utilized resources on the AASHE website to complete STARS. Following the Sustainability Forum, the students wrote to AASHE assessing STARS as a sustainability ratings system.
We wrote the report section by section (Education & Research, Operations, Planning, Assessment & Engagement). Based on AASHE’s recommendation, we started the curriculum assessment early. Gathering the appropriate faculty together to agree on a definition of sustainability-focused and sustainability-related courses was time-consuming as was soliciting faculty responses to the on-line survey the students composed. In the Operations Section, students divided credits based on which faculty or staff member needed to be contacted (to avoid six students contacting the same staff person). In the Planning, Assessment, and Engagement section we decided it made the most sense to divide the work by sections such as Investment or Public Engagement. Ideally, we will use STARS as a capstone project again in three years, when the students who attended the Sustainability Forum as first year students can assess the progress we’ve made during their tenure at the University.
I learned several lessons from incorporating STARS into our ESS capstone classes.
1) Beginning with articles and book chapters about sustainability and then reading about different sustainability ratings systems provided an intellectual framework for the class to which we consistently returned. Discussing an environmental justice approach to sustainability helped students understand why sections like Diversity and Human Resources were important to STARS.
2) Start with the Education and Research section. While it was not more work than the other sections, we needed a longer period of time to complete the tasks.
3) Work with your sustainability coordinator. Our sustainability coordinator was invaluable in helping us identify who at the University would have the data we needed.
4) Value staff time and discuss with students the need to be respectful of staff’s busy schedules and gracious for their assistance.
5) Make the pedagogical goals of the project clear. We started the class with the learning objectives for the capstone and returned to them throughout the class.
6) Engage students in a discussion as to how to best publicize their results and recommendations. The most exciting and effective ideas for our forum, including a raffle tied to a sustainability quiz, came from students.
7) Empower students. The class would not have been successful without the ownership students felt over the project. Because students believed they could use STARS to create institutional change and promote a cultural of sustainability at the University, they took the work they did seriously and were creative in leveraging STARS to advance campus sustainability.
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