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School of Sustainability News Sustainability Connect Successes

May 7, 2018

As the largest university in the country Arizona State University inevitably makes quite a bit of waste. Sure we have a Zero Waste initiative, and we recycle and compost, but there are often items, large and small, that get overlooked. Students are helping to fill the gaps.

In spring 2018 a one-credit course was created as a cross-disciplinary effort between the School of Sustainability (SOS), University Sustainability Practices (USP), and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts (HIDA) to bring students of different disciplines together to collaborate on a sustainability-focused art project. Students were charged with the task of developing a prototype of an outdoor common space for the Tempe campus. They focused on waste, recycling, and circular resources and were then released to complete the project with guidance from a team of staff from SOS, USP, and HIDA. The intention of the final installation was to engage campus visitors, students, staff, and faculty who move through common spaces at ASU. Groups were encouraged to consider innovative materials and construction processes for their installations.

Class time comprised of talks by artists, designers, and sustainability experts to give students an idea of the kinds of projects they could create, the specific issues they could focus on, and free time to work on their designs. Once student teams moved through development stages, they received approval to construct their proposed installation. Students were judged by ASU student peers, selected staff, and faculty. Funding and scholarship opportunities were also available for this group and were judged in a competition setting.

Abigail Graves, Student Engagement Coordinator at SOS, said, “Students seem pretty aware of the negative impact our human lifestyles are having on our environment. They realize that the materials we use daily become a waste burden, and if we are not more thoughtful of how materials are created and how they will be disposed of, we are going to seriously hurt our planet’s ecosystems, including our own ability to survive.”

Students were thoughtful in their approaches and demonstrated a huge range in creativity. Installations included a decorative and beautiful arrangement of potted plants made out of what were formerly styrofoam coolers and sculptures out of wooden shipping pallets. Old ASU event signs were even reused to create colorful imagery upon a table top. Another, Permanence of Plastic, created a gateway with suspended plastic to focus on the 300 million pounds of plastic we produce each year. Reduce Reuse Re: ASU reimagined how to use waste materials for repurposed furniture. These demonstrations were displayed with their creators close by to explain their inspirations and their construction techniques to passersby.

The range in majors and minors of the student participants helped shape the multitude of project types. Graves notes that the diversity of students was part of what made the class so interesting. Everyone came into the project with varying skill levels and with different expectations, so every project was unique.

Students were happy to answer questions about their experiences building their pieces. Many of them visited ASU’s own Surplus Property Lot to acquire project materials. They were shocked at some of the items found there. As one student remarked, “This is a perfectly good recycling bin. Its wheel broke so they were going to throw it away. That’s irony, right there; it’s a RECYCLING BIN.” That kind of frustration was echoed in many of the other groups.

Graves was pretty proud of the students’ results, “The final projects each illuminated a different aspect of waste; the contrast of plants that live and die and our man made stuff that exists forever, the creative reuse of broken items to make new items, and the feeling of being surrounded by floating plastic like how our ocean friends might feel (except they live in it all the time). It was so amazing to see people who’d come to see what was going on interact with the installations.”

As a final course task, the course committee and students met to figure out what worked well and where they faced the biggest challenges. Students were encouraged to express their opinions of the course in an end of year wrap-up session and offer new or alternative suggestions for the future. Some students noted there was no methodical rubric to follow and that this was quite a bit of work for one credit, but it challenged them to work in teams of strangers and make a tangible, usable space. The course began as largely experimental in nature, and each group of students will help shape the courses going forward, building off the experience of previous cohorts. Students hope in the future the focus can be shifted from working in a pop-up style to helping to make permanent changes to ASU Campus. The course will be offered again in the fall 2018 semester.