Nature/Society also focuses on the social, biological, and ecological aspects of humans in the natural world. Atsushi Akera, associate professor in the department of science and technology studies and director for the First-Year Studies Program, and John Gowdy, professor of economics and the Virginia and Lloyd W. Rittenhouse ’35 Teaching Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, serve as the core teaching faculty. Akera noted that the course emphasizes “critical thinking about where we all come from and where we are going as a society.”
“The signature themes of the program are a focus on independent thought, critical thinking, and an early introduction to undergraduate research experience,” he said. “Students also learn about how individuals have used the land in the past, what we do today, and what our prospects are as a species for the 21st century.”
Contemporary issues such as land use, energy use, climate change, and biodiversity loss are explored through literature, films, and guest lectures. The course is also organized around a series of field trips to upstate landmarks that include the Erie Canal, the historic city of Troy, and the Rensselaer Plateau. Students also prepare “virtual” trips to distant places that allow them to study human habitation in very different ecological settings.
During the second semester, students are encouraged to enroll in other courses related to sustainability, and are given an opportunity to participate, for credit, in a supervised undergraduate research experience. Students are also encouraged to participate in sustainability-related groups and activities on campus. Akera noted that given the student interest, the Vasudha program has increasingly come to see itself as a four year program with a one-year residency component, where students develop and maintain an active academic and extracurricular interest in sustainability throughout their time at Rensselaer.
“Students are coming to Rensselaer already interested in issues associated with the environment,” said Gowdy, a faculty member since 1989. “In the past few years, I see that today’s students as a whole are much more engaged in sustainability and concerned about the environment. They want to make the world a better place and there is a greater sense of responsibility and deeper understanding of what needs to be done.”
“Nature has always been an inspiration to me, and my life goals stem from this connection,” said Anasha Cummings ’12, a sophomore majoring in Design, Innovation, and Society and former resident of Vasudha. “Living in Vasudha, we got a crash course introduction to everything the local area has to offer from the farmers markets, local book stores, and coffee shops to camping trips and research opportunities at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, and it gave me the opportunity to climb and hug trees shamelessly.”
Cummings, currently a sophomore, now serves as president of EcoLogic, the longest-running student environmental club at Rensselaer. He noted that the experience connected him with many amazing individuals with serious concerns and love for the environment.
“For those of us living in Vasudha, we look at it not just as a group of people living together for a while, but as members of a community both micro and macro where we discuss world views, share in philosophical discussions, and work out group dynamics. It’s a space that gathers passionate people together under one roof and gives us the room to grow,” he said.
This semester, Ellen Roybal, a doctoral student also in ecological economics, is serving as the teaching and learning assistant for the program. “Sustainability is about living while practically thinking about the impact of your decisions. Students in Vasudha are very enthusiastic about sustainable living and its lifestyle. This is a wonderful program that brings together the classroom and real-world experiences, allowing students to understand what it means to be part of a community with shared interests, and how to interact in that community. This is an important skill that will not help them in college, but later on in life.”