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November 2023

Gen Ed in Action

Fostering civic engagement in the classroom: Environmental Justice (SOC 3404) with Shannon Bell

When Shannon Bell started rethinking how to teach an environmental justice course she’d taught regularly at University of Kentucky and once as a Special Topics course at Virginia Tech, she knew she wanted to incorporate a few important elements. 

First, Bell, who has been a professor in the Department of Sociology since 2017, wanted her students to engage with a relevant local issue. Ideally, each student would have a defined role and contribution for addressing a campus or community issue.   

She also knew she wanted to provide an opportunity for field research, and to make that happen, she’d need to have them work in small groups. Bringing together students from different majors and colleges was also important. 

After several years of fine-tuning, the result is Environmental Justice (SOC 3404), which Bell taught during the spring 2023 semester. Seventeen students representing nine majors from four different colleges enrolled in the course.

“This is the first year the course has been a Pathways course, and I went through the process of making it a Pathways class  because I wanted it to be interdisciplinary,” said Bell. “And I wanted to draw students from across campus.”

Central to the course’s design was a capstone project to create a report and set of recommendations for Virginia Tech’s Division of Campus Planning and the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Energy focused on  how Virginia Tech can fulfill its renewable energy goals while also addressing environmental justice concerns related to the looming solar e-waste crisis. 

By 2050, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there will be more than 10 million metric tons of solar panel waste in the U.S. alone. Currently, there is little incentive for recycling in the U.S. because of the high cost, and the panels can leach toxic metals in the groundwater if improperly disposed of in a landfill. 

In 2020 Bell was the co-convener of the Climate Justice Subcommittee of Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment Working Group which sought to ensure that environmental and climate justice considerations were built into the revised Climate Action Commitment. Bell is also a faculty participant in the university-wide Climate Action Living Laboratory, which aims to incorporate VT’s Climate Action Commitment into the classroom. 

“I wanted to find ways for my students to help Virginia Tech act on the climate justice goals it had committed to,” said Bell. “One of the climate justice pathways written into the Climate Action Commitment is to ‘Ensure that the social impacts of Virginia Tech’s climate mitigation choices (including energy, land use, and waste) are identified and addressed to the greatest extent possible.’” 

By focusing her students’ research on how the university could ensure that its solar e-waste will be recycled when new installations have reached their usable lifespan, Bell hoped her class’s project could help move the climate justice goals of the Climate Action Commitment forward. 

Their report, titled “Solar E-Waste Recycling: A Climate Justice Imperative,” was created by Bell and six of her students and focuses on avoiding some of the unintended consequences of converting to carbon-neutral electricity. The report was the result of several weeks of research and interviews that provided an overview of the problem and explained the complex procurement process for solar panels, along with proposing a set of recommendations for the university’s Request for Proposals (RFP) process for all new solar installations.

Below are a few ways Bell incorporated fieldwork and civic engagement into her Pathways class.

Create a small-class experience

To complete the necessary research and field work, seventeen students would be too large a group to manage, so Bell offered it as an optional capstone project. 

“I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad, and I always try to recreate the experience I had as a student by providing intensive learning experiences that allow me to really get to know my students,” said Bell. “That’s not always possible at a school like Virginia Tech, but providing community-based, optional projects within the class is a way for me to do that.”

Six students chose to work on the final project, and to create an equitable workload, Bell assigned a longer, traditional term paper for the remaining 11 students. 

“I think the draw for the students who chose this project was that the report would be meaningful beyond the class,” said Bell. “I think it was really special for those students, and it was really gratifying for me.”

The students were broken into three groups with each doing background research, interviews, or writing the report’s final recommendations.

Get students comfortable with uncertainty

“I love research and I love the discovery process, so part of it is preparing my students to understand we may not get the answers we expect,” said Bell. “I wanted them to understand the complexity of field work and to be okay with not knowing how it will unfold.”

Bell helped the students craft questions and interview Mary-Ann Ibeziako, Virginia Tech’s Assistant Vice President of Infrastructure and Chief Sustainability Officer, which led to a meeting with SunTribe, the solar developer that the university worked with for its rooftop arrays.  

The interviews gave students valuable insight into the complex supply chain of solar panels, from sourcing to the financial barriers to recycling.  Ultimately, the discussions informed the report's recommendation to include a recycling plan as part of the university’s  Request for Proposals process for all future solar installations. 

For Lauren Seals, a senior majoring in political science, it was the first time she’d done fieldwork. Seals is also enrolled in the Pathways minor, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

“I know I learn best from interdisciplinary discussions and hearing from other students’ perspectives,” said Seals. “Dr. Bell really pushed us to look outside our classroom, pulling information from other disciplines to see the connections between the course, our community, and real life.”

Find a topic that matters to students

Bell asked several students at the beginning of this semester why they picked this class and many said they thought the topic sounded interesting.

“Climate change is the most important issue for anyone living in our time,” said Nikolai Bravo, a senior majoring in political science in the class. “Green energy is always assumed to be a net positive, but with any big issue, it’s nuanced.”

Knowing that their recommendations would be submitted to the university’s Division of Campus Planning and the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Energy  provided additional motivation and engagement for her students, said Bell. 

“This project was my first experience at Virginia Tech where I felt my work could have an actual impact,” said Bravo.