Capstone telecommunications course examines environmental issues

Nina Trach
January 20, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When you ask a website to store your data, you probably don’t consider what it takes to keep a data warehouse running — often the same amount of energy as a medium-sized town.

Students who completed Ben Cramer’s COMM 489W class do. The course, titled "Advanced Telecommunications Topics - Telecommunications and the Environment," gives 20 seniors the opportunity to explore the “virtual landfill” and countless other environmental challenges of the telecommunications industry.

While the connection between telecommunications and the environment may not be as obvious on the surface level for some, Cramer seeks to show students that the relationship is far-reaching.

“The course opens up possibilities for new career paths,” said Cramer, associate teaching professor of telecommunications. “Work at a nonprofit, work in government or help the company that you're working with understand their own environmental consequences.”

A capstone course for seniors, COMM 489W gives students the opportunity to understand the environmental realities of the industry they are preparing to enter. A common theme Cramer has found is how unaware students were before his class of just how much the environment is impacted by the telecommunications equipment and networks they love.

For every device that is used, raw materials from the Earth are needed to create it. When they are no longer wanted, those devices are thrown away or recycled. They may end up leaking toxic chemicals in the garbage, and the process required to dispose of them takes an immense amount of energy.

Students get to experience this process firsthand during a field trip to the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority. Bringing the issues discussed in class into reality helps class members visualize and understand the large-scale effort that goes into recycling and environmental efforts.

“This is usually seniors who are telecom majors and they've been through four years of the topic. I just like to give them something a little bit creative, something they wouldn't have thought of before.”

— Ben Cramer, associate teaching professor of telecommunications

Other sections of advanced telecommunications topics are offered, with each professor having the liberty to choose a topic of interest relating to telecommunications and emphasizing writing development. Cramer uses his previous experience as an editor to pay careful attention to the writing aspect of COMM 489W and sees the environmental focus of the course as a creative outlet for himself and his students.

“This is usually seniors who are telecom majors and they've been through four years of the topic,” he said. “I just like to give them something a little bit creative, something they wouldn't have thought of before.”

The course examines a wide variety of topics, including energy consumption, data storage, media advocacy and human rights — just to name a few. Through weekly reflection papers and an end-of-term paper, students dive deeper into course readings and the topics that interest them personally.

MacKenzie Scott said Cramer’s class was an opportunity to bring her perspective as a Filipino-Lebanese student to conversations regarding the effect of telecommunications in developing countries, something she feels both connected to and passionate about.

“I still feel that this is a really good place for me to bring up issues that are actually very important for me and not feel judged for that,” Scott said. “I talked a lot in class — probably too much, honestly — and I still always felt heard in the class.”

In his fifth year of teaching the environmentally focused course, Cramer appreciates the opportunity to pair his love for the environment with his expertise in telecommunications and law.

Scott enrolled after taking a telecommunications law course with Cramer and enjoying his ability to transform what she thought would be dry course material into a resurgence in her interest in law. She particularly appreciated Cramer’s discussion-based approach to teaching.

“As the year kept going on, our classes became more student run, where the students would present on the readings based on the subject material for the day,” she said.

With seats set in a circle, Scott and her peers also proposed questions to each other and were each responsible for one presentation over the course of the semester, improving their presentation skills and taking turns leading class discussion.

Scott said her only regret was that she did not take the telecommunications and the environment class sooner.

“I learned a lot about myself, actually, and I learned a lot about what I may want to do,” she said.

Last Updated January 20, 2020