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Got Questions?: Choosing Sustainability

Sustainable Advice for a Green Earth (SAGE) students take on complex questions about how to be green.

Got Questions?

Choosing SustainabilityWhy can't we install windmills in our backyards and trap the energy for personal use? Is it better to eat with wooden chopsticks or disposable forks? Can Styrofoam be recycled? Or even, more starkly, are we all doomed?

Under the guidance of environmental journalist and E-IPER lecturer Thomas Hayden, Stanford students tackle these questions and more in the course IPER 200: Sustaining Action: Research, Analysis and Writing for the Public. The class, offered twice a year since Winter 2009, attracts both undergraduate and graduate students from an array of academic disciplines, united by a shared desire to assess and communicate the science of environmental sustainability in an accurate and broadly accessible manner.

So far, Hayden has received more than 500 questions about environmental issues and sustainable living from Stanford alumni, and he matches each student with three according to their background and interests. Students research the answers throughout the quarter, and craft engaging, informative responses that emulate the style of well-known advice columns, but are delivered with technical understanding and scientific rigor. According to Earth Systems undergraduate Lauren Kubiak, "We get a seemingly simple question, and then three hours, seemingly endless research and many quantitative calculations later, it seems like I'm answering the most complicated question in the world— especially when trying to package it into an accessible 500-word answer."

Every month, STANFORD magazine publishes two of these "eco-advice" columns on its website. Hayden's inaugural winter 2009 class dubbed the column "SAGE"- Sound Advice for a Green Earth. SAGE celebrated its one-year anniversary of regular publication in May with support from the School of Earth Sciences, The Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Office of the President.

Nearly 50 students have taken Sustaining Action so far. "Students learn to write in a way they've never learned before, and to look at issues in ways they've never looked at them before," says Hayden. Biology PhD candidate Rachel Adams echoes, "I'm trained as a scientist and was looking for a class that would give me experience in communicating science to non-scientists. It's hard to imagine a better introduction than Tom's [class]." Students also explore the science and technology of environmental sustainability, and related issues including communication theory, public perceptions of environmental science and the psychology of behavior change.

Through Hayden's instruction and intensive workshopping of answers-in-progress, students gain confidence in uncovering relevant, high-quality research, conducting interviews with Stanford experts, constructing gripping stories and developing the appropriate voice for various audiences. E-IPER joint MBA-MS graduate Andy Martin particularly recalls recognizing the need "to avoid jargon when writing for a non-professional audience."

A true journalist, Hayden sets tight deadlines throughout the quarter. Students bring their drafts to class for instructor and peer workshopping, a critical part of the editing phase. Hayden "has an open-minded and engaging personality, and his general outlook creates a healthy atmosphere for constructive criticism," says Environmental Earth System Science PhD candidate Mike Osborne. "I've never had another instructor spend as much time as Tom did reviewing each piece of writing submitted by students in a class," Martin adds. "Each draft I gave to Tom was returned with notes, tips, and suggestions— sometimes more text than I had submitted to him!"

Hayden says he is learning as well. "The experience of stepping back from doing environmental journalism and thinking about the building blocks of doing it has been a very rich learning experience for me," he says. Having left academic science to work as a science journalist in 1997, he's been happy to return to the academic world, where "it's extremely heartening to see that students who are interested in the same things I was back then are also interested in applying their knowledge and engaging the public in conversation in a much more sophisticated way than we were ten or fifteen years ago."

Indeed, Hayden is proud that SAGE builds bridges not only between generations of Stanford students, but also academic disciplines. He contends that SAGE's success stems from "the intelligence of current students; the curiosity of alumni; and the support of faculty who visit class and sit down with students for interviews."

So are we doomed? If Hayden's infectious enthusiasm and the collaboration of Stanford alumni, instructors, and students are any indication, the answer to that particular question is almost certainly no.

To read the SAGE column and submit your own questions visit the SAGE website.

Written by Haley Smith Kingsland, Earth Systems Master's student and E-IPER web intern. Image credit: Nick Enge. People pictured from left to right: Adam Cole, Micki Ream, Tom Hayden, Marina Oster and Sarah Wiederkehr, Stanford Farm Educator.