Online, residential students join together to study sustainability

February 25, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — They attend Penn State from many different locations, but that didn’t stop a diverse group of students from joining together to tackle sustainability challenges.

Undergraduate students from across Penn State's campuses, including Penn State World Campus, worked side by side as part of a three-semester course sponsored by the College of Earth and Mineral Science’s Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE), designed to promote undergraduate research and study abroad/study away. The program was offered by EMS’s Energy and Sustainability Policy Program.

“A lot of the students were from different walks of life,” said Talia Potochny, a junior studying geography at University Park who participated in the course. It was really cool to see everyone’s perspective on the project. I think it was valuable for all of us.”

CAUSE courses include a travel component that provides “real world experiences” for students — allowing them to work closely with faculty and conduct theme-based research in the classroom and in the field.

This was the first time that the CAUSE Program was offered through the World Campus. The course provided students with a unique opportunity to do hands-on research and to personally interact with traditional students, said Daniel Kasper, an instructor in Penn State’s Energy and Sustainability Policy (ESP) program, an online program offered by EMS’ John A. Dutton e-Education Institute.

“A really important goal for us is to give our students an authentic and personal learning experience while in the World Campus program,” Kasper said. “It’s my opinion that students should have the opportunity to go out and see the world and travel. I really want all students to have that chance.”

CAUSE 2019, “Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture,” focused on sustainability topics like urban and rural food production, zero waste policies, solar photovoltaics and more.

Students spent their spring semester learning about sustainability topics, traveled over the summer to Colorado, where they visited sites and spoke to companies about sustainability applications, and spent the fall semester working on their research projects. The course wrapped this past December with group presentations.

“When you’re in class, you read and learn about these sustainability topics, but I wanted to give the students the opportunity to speak to people who have applied these concepts in real life,” Kasper said. “We visited a nonprofit that helps people have access to solar when they otherwise wouldn’t, a number of sustainable food operations, a tiny-home builder, and a brewery that has implemented unique sustainability applications. We got to observe some very innovative ideas.”

Potochny, who has been interested in sustainability since taking a course on the topic her first year at Penn State, said the trip showed off green initiatives happening in the United States, and inspired students to make a difference.  

“The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned is that the world is so big and there are so many people doing things to help make it more sustainable,” she said. “Studying the theory of sustainability is not going to be enough. We all have to do simple things, little things, that can make a difference.”

Potochny went into the project with a goal to bridge the gap between technology and sustainability. She teamed with a classmate to work on a project that would encourage high school students to garden through the use of augmented reality technology.  

“It was a way to combine the worlds of technology and sustainability,” she said. “There are so many benefits to using technology in the classroom, especially gamified technology. It takes something simple and turns it into a game. It’s instant feedback and doesn’t feel like you are necessarily learning.”

Potochny plans to continue her CAUSE research and apply it to her thesis on augmented reality. She said CAUSE provided her with invaluable real-world field experience that will help her as she continues her college career.

“I think CAUSE is a great start for students who want to get into research,” she said.

Also serving as an instructor was Haley Sankey, assistant teaching professor in the Dutton e-Education Institute and a Penn State Student Engagement Network Faculty Fellow.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 02, 2020