Community-Minded Educators Convene at Piedmont Project

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Georgia Tech recently chose to make creating sustainable communities a pillar of its undergraduate curriculum through the new Serve•Learn•Sustain initiative, but it’s not the only university in the city working to expand this aspect of undergraduate learning. 

Emory University’s Piedmont Project, which began in 2001, is a faculty development program designed to help educators incorporate sustainability and environmental issues into their courses. This year, Emory invited Georgia Tech faculty to participate in a two-day summer workshop that’s part of the project.

Monica Halka, associate director for the Honors Program, took the opportunity to meet with peers from around the area to discuss how they are addressing sustainable communities in their classrooms. Participants came from disciplines as varied as health sciences, dance, film, or environmental studies. 

“We all had different perspectives on sustainability — there are so many ways to think of it — but with a focus on place: the Piedmont,” Halka said, referring to the geographical region that encompasses the Atlanta area. 

Part of the two-day workshop discussed making personal connections with community partners to find the right opportunities for university partnerships. Some outside groups may want to work with students but are not aware of some of the challenges, such as trying to fit a project into the timeline of a semester. 

“You can’t do this work unless you have personal connections,” Halka said. “You have to find people who want to work with students and, really, who have a project ready to go.”

When these challenges are faced and worked through, though, the partnerships can be extremely rewarding for both sides. Halka teaches an urban forests class that focuses on the role of trees in cities, frequently partnering with Trees Atlanta. One recent project was to conduct a tree survival inventory to help the organization determine which trees grow best in which places in the city. They also have worked with Georgia Tech Facilities Management on a soil study to determine the same thing on campus, and to look at stormwater management. 

“Students just love it,” she said. “They feel like they’re doing something real.” Many of Halka’s students have continued to volunteer with partner organizations such as Trees Atlanta, even after they finish their work in the course. 

The Piedmont Project also was a chance for university peers to find ways to collaborate with one other. This year, Halka hopes to work with a professor from Georgia Perimeter College who specializes in microbiology and can assist with training students on how to take soil samples in urban environments. In exchange, Halka will introduce the Georgia Perimeter group to Piedmont Park, where she routinely takes classes for field work.

While Georgia Tech has an influence around the globe, Halka emphasized the importance of working with local communities and doing work on and around Tech’s home. 

“If you can’t get your own house in order, how can you go out to other places to help?”

In recent years, she’s made a concerted effort to work community involvement into Honors Program courses. Chris Burke, director of community relations for Government and Community Relations, teaches a course focused on public school outreach. Kelly Comfort, associate professor in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, has taught a class that incorporates outreach with Hispanic communities.

The biggest challenge Halka has found in getting more faculty involved is that they are not formally trained on how to do it. 

“It’d be nice if it were the culture here to get involved in this work,” she said.

An experimental atomic physicist by trade, Halka transitioned into working in sustainability after coming to Georgia Tech nine years ago. While teaching a class that required students to calculate their carbon footprints, she discovered hers was larger than anyone’s, thanks to the international travel she took several times a year. She began trying to offset her emissions by volunteering with Trees Atlanta, which led to the development of her urban forests course.

“I found that the work I was doing wasn’t benefiting the world,” she said. “Urban forest work is kind of a nascent science, but I hope I’m becoming one of the experts in my old age.”



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