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UF Professors Work Toward Sustainability With Syllabi

Banning disposable plastic botles in the classroom is one way UF professors are contributing to conservation. Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo
Banning disposable plastic botles in the classroom is one way UF professors are contributing to conservation. Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo

As Terry Harpold’s young daughter walked through the University of Florida campus, something peculiar caught her eye.

She noticed that the trash cans, which are all separately labeled “landfill,” “paper” and “plastic,” contained items that did not corresponded with the proper label.

She saw people throwing plastic bottles into the can for paper and food trash into the can for plastics. At only 12 years old, she realized what many university students did not: These actions defeat the purpose of having separate containers.

“[My daughter] said, 'This isn’t just wrong, but it makes it more work for the janitors and the people who pick up the trash,'” Harpold said.

Harpold, an associate professor of English, film and media studies at UF, is part of a trend of professors nationwide who are taking initiatives in their classrooms to get university students thinking about sustainable practices.

One of the policies he has added to his Spring syllabi is against disposable, plastic water bottles and beverage containers in the classroom, he said.

The policy reads, “Bring food and/or beverages to the classroom only in durable, reusable containers. Please, no bottled water or beverages in disposable containers.”

“I’m not able to dock a student’s grade if he or she walks in with a bottled water beverage container; that’s not appropriate,” he said.“But, if I can get her or him to think a little bit about it then that’s a good thing.”

As part of his policy, Harpold, who has been teaching at UF for 15 years, encourages students to purchase electronic editions of assigned texts if available or use copies of print texts that can be returned to circulation. He added he would distribute all his course materials via electronic media.

“Enough trees have been sacrificed to university paperwork,” the policy states.

However, Harpold is not the first professor at UF to adopt a policy like this.

He said he got the idea to include a policy on environmentally unsustainable activity in the classroom from Cynthia Barnett, a UF professor of environmental journalism, who implemented her own policy banning disposable beverage containers prior to Harpold.

Barnett was one of the speakers of the Prairie Project, a seminar in which about a dozen UF faculty members participated in workshops on how to insert sustainability into the curriculum, Harpold said.

During her talk, she mentioned in passing her policy on bottled beverages and other disposable containers.

“It was Cynthia that caused a little light bulb in my head to go off, and I said this is what I have to do, and it's something that I will do for the rest of my classes,” Harpold said

Barnett’s policy for her environmental journalism course reads, “Beverages in durable, reusable containers are O.K. Please, no bottled water or any beverages in disposable containers. We’ll talk about why.”

“I thought it would be a really good way to not only contribute to the sustainability efforts underway at UF, but also to help spark the conversation in class about ways we can live differently,” she said.

Barnett, a journalist, said her bottled-water policy was inspired by one of her long-time sources for water information, Christiana Peppard, who is an assistant professor of theology, science, ethics and environmental studies at Fordham University.

Peppard is the author of several books and publications and also writes articles concerning water, including "7 Reasons To Never Drink Bottled Water Again."

Her classroom policy reads, “Beverages in durable, reusable containers are permissible in the classroom, but not bottled water or disposable containers! (No joke. I will explain.)”

Barnett read about Peppard’s policy in one of her stories and was inspired to mimic her initiative by creating a similar policy for her students at UF.

“To me, the important thing is that it opens a conversation and is a tangible a way to help students see the benefit of reusing their own water bottle, which saves energy, money, and keeps a little more plastic out of the world,” she said.

Barnett added that the objective of the policy is not to make students feel guilty, but rather to get them thinking about the extent to which throwaway culture is harming the planet and how easy it is to live differently.

UF and its Office of Sustainability have moved forward with sustainability plans, including a mandatory class on climate change for all incoming freshmen.

In addition to including a policy in his syllabi, Harpold has developed other ways to incorporate sustainability studies into his curriculum.

He created a new course in which students read fiction shaped by climate change and its consequences for the future, he said.

Harpold will begin teaching the course in Spring 2016, and students will have the opportunity to receive a humanities general education credit for it. The university’s sustainability studies major and minor directors have also included the course under their core requirements, he said.

“I’m not teaching the class to get up on the podium and preach to the audience," he said. "I just want to give them a set of text for doing thought experiments, maybe that creates a situation in which students can be brought to think critically about issues that they hadn’t thought about before.”

Laura is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.