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Georgia Tech Commits to Ambitious Sustainable Community Engagement Initiative

Within a few years, every undergrad at the Georgia Institute of Technology could understand what it means to create sustainable communities.That’s the goal of a new institute-wide initiative called Serve•Learn•Sustain.

Within a few years, every undergrad at the Georgia Institute of Technology could understand what it means to create sustainable communities.

That’s the goal of a new institute-wide initiative called Serve•Learn•Sustain.

Earlier this year Georgia Tech adopted the Serve•Learn•Sustain Quality Enhancement Plan focused on “creating sustainable communities” and emphasizing community engagement and service learning as its central pedagogical approach.

Professor Beril Toktay, who is the Faculty Director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business at Georgia Tech, lead one of two concept papers that were combined to form the basis of the QEP. Professor Ellen Zegura, who chairs the Service Learning and Community Engagement (SLCE) Council at Georgia Tech, lead the writing of the other paper. Toktay and Zegura are now the QEP Executive Co-Directors.

I spoke with them and Professor Matthew Realff, QEP Liaison for the College of Engineering, to find out how the Serve•Learn•Sustain Plan will transform education at Georgia Tech and how industry will be involved.

Why is the QEP such a big deal?

Ellen Zegura: It’s a big deal because it’s expected to touch the very fabric of undergraduate education on campus. The QEP is directly related to Georgia Tech’s strategic plan, and helps achieve its vision and mission.

The university provides a budget for five years of support. After that, components of the QEP become permanently absorbed into the fabric of the institution. Our last QEP, initiated in 2005, was a combination of what were called the International Plan and the Undergraduate Research Plan.

Today, 47 percent of Georgia Tech students boast an international experience, and we have a strong undergraduate research culture. We expect similar success with the new plan.

So what’s the goal of putting sustainability at the center of the new plan?

Beril Toktay: The main objective is to equip our students with the knowledge and capabilities to address sustainability challenges and societal needs in their professions and civic lives.

We want to give Georgia Tech students exposure to sustainability and community engagement fundamentals. Achieving that at an institution the size of Georgia Tech, with its strong technical foundations, could have a profound impact in a lot of communities. And in return, deeper community engagement will bring new research topics into the university.

In short, we want to help students demonstrate Tech’s motto of "Progress and Service" in ways that are tangible and unprecedented in Georgia Tech's history.

Speaking of history, what is Georgia Tech’s history with sustainability?

Toktay: Sustainability became part of Georgia Tech’s mission and strategic goals in 1995, thanks in part to Ray Anderson.

People in the sustainability community know him for the transformation he led at his company, Interface. But as a Georgia Tech alumnus and member of the university’s Advisory Board, he also had a big influence on campus.

In 1995, university leadership adopted sustainability as a guiding principle in Georgia Tech’s strategic plan and established an Office of Environmental Stewardship for campus management. The Institute has further strengthened its commitment to sustainability with each strategic planning cycle since.

In 1999, Georgia Tech established The Institute for Sustainable Technology and Development (ISTD). Its charter was to act as the institutional champion for sustainability research, education and campus investments. This Institute then expanded in 2009 to become the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS).

And, of course, in 2013, to transform the role of business institutions in creating a sustainable future, we launched the Center for Business Strategies for Sustainability at Tech’s Scheller College of Business, which is now the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business. So it feels as though we’ve come full-circle.

Why was this particular QEP proposed and selected?

Zegura: Perhaps most importantly, the Serve•Learn•Sustain Plan addresses educational needs voiced by our graduates.

Tech is well known for its disciplinary excellence. Not surprisingly, post-graduation surveys of our students reveal that they are very satisfied with how well the school has prepared them for the practice of their disciplines.

Yet the same students rate their Georgia Tech education significantly lower with regard to understanding the environmental, social and cultural impact of their professions and working effectively in diverse teams. The Serve•Learn•Sustain Plan aims to close this gap.

Matthew Realff: The plan also embodies Georgia Tech’s values.

Our vision and mission statements call for Georgia Tech to be a leader in “influencing major technological, social, and policy decisions that address critical global challenges” and in “improving the human condition in Georgia, the United States, and around the globe.”

We’re witnessing a sea change in student and faculty interest in having a positive influence on the world. There’s a growing expectation that investments in higher education should pay back to society in tangible ways.

The QEP seeks to institutionalize this culture change and make it a core in everything Georgia Tech does.

What role will industry or non-profit partners play in the QEP?

Toktay: Educational partnerships with industry, NGOs, and government are central to the success of the QEP, because service learning can only occur effectively on real projects with knowledgeable, on-the-ground partners.

Core infrastructure elements of the QEP are a Partnership Development team and a web-based project clearinghouse where service-learning projects will be listed for faculty to review and use.

External partners will work with faculty and the Partnership Development Team to identify sustainable community engagement projects that would be suitable for service learning capstones and project-based classes, as well as internships and co-ops.

Realff: A good example of this is potential service-learning projects that might leverage technology under development in the College of Engineering for low-cost, clean water infrastructure.

Engineering faculty and students are working on wireless sensors than can monitor continuously whether or not water infrastructure is working properly. This can lower maintenance overhead and allow for infrastructure expansion in developing countries.

They’re also working on inexpensive equipment for community-based e-coli testing.

World Water Relief (WWR) — an Atlanta based charity — is interested in using the equipment and training as part of a 10-year commitment to clean water infrastructure in Haiti and Dominican Republic.

Tech has lots of programs that could be leveraged like this for both student learning and the benefit of external partners. The QEP will create many such opportunities.

How are projects like these integrated with curriculum?

Zegura: There are lots of ways. For instance, we’ve just launched a new summer internship program called Data Science for Social Good. Students in the program work as paid interns on projects that come from the City of Atlanta and local non-profits.

The pilot offering, in summer 2014, was sponsored by Oracle Academy. Projects included improving data entry and creating a dashboard for Truly Living Well, an urban agriculture organization in Atlanta, and performing data processing and visualization for Cycle Atlanta, a collaboration between the City of Atlanta and Georgia Tech to improve cycling safety and availability.

Leadership for Social Good is another example. It’s a study-abroad program that places students with non-profit social enterprises overseas.

Whether or not a student's future plans involve working for a non-profit, the program gives them first-hand experiences with the opportunities found in the nonprofit sector. It also exposes them to the challenges organizations face in trying to better serve their constituents.

Our Leadership Minor is another curriculum element that often includes a focus on sustainable communities. A recent capstone project included planning and building a sustainable composting facility for a local urban farm in collaboration with the Global Growers Network (GGN).

Through the QEP, we’ll work to add and expand on programs like these.

Why should industry care about Georgia Tech’s QEP? What do they have to gain?

Toktay: By participating in the QEP, our partners will join a community of highly capable faculty and students who are committed to creating sustainable communities and a sustainable future.

They’ll also have an opportunity to shape our students’ undergraduate experiences as well as faculty research. And they’ll get a head start on identifying and recruiting the best and brightest minds Georgia Tech has to offer.