Published: March 3, 2023 By

What follows is a story about an assignment that I don’t think Chat GPT can do (since it can’t shop at a thrift store and doesn’t have Instagram friends). To ensure our students — and not AI technology — are demonstrating engagement with class material, we can design assignments that creatively utilize other types of technology. 

a person in a green body suit with jean cutoff shorts, a leather jacket and a red neck scarf sits on a whiskey barrel with one knee up and their hand on their knee posing like a model screenshot of text from a student submission

Photo Credit: Text and photo sent out by student Ben Stasny within his circle of community

Green Suits Your Fashion is a climate-related non-disposable student project (an assignment that lives beyond the four walls of a classroom) that took place in the spring of 2021 with an upper-division undergraduate course, Creative Climate Communication, which focused on creatively communicating sustainable fashion. For this assignment students were asked to visually communicate, within their circle of influence, how sustainable fashion can positively impact the environment and be aspirational to others. Each student created a sustainably sourced outfit (that is, thrifted, handed down, recycled, retrieved from a dumpster, clothing swapped, or made from repurposed materials) as an expression of their personal style. One student even crocheted a tube top out of strips of plastic bags for the project. All students created a photo or video of themselves modeling their outfit while wearing a full-body Spandex green suit underneath. They were assigned to add an accurately researched informational message to a public post that was related to the focus of their visual communication.

I challenged students to reach at least ten people within their circle of influence and document any feedback received. This assignment activated students, who are trusted messengers of climate within their circles of influence (Robinson, 2019), using “The Power of Ten” as a framework for suitably scaling sustainability and climate action in response to the rapid need for transformation of systems, policies, and behaviors, (Bhowmik et al., 2021). It also does this in a manner that offers attainable, local action (sourcing fashion sustainably), which helps de-escalate disengagement by those who can become overwhelmed by climate issues when posed as a global threat (Markowitz et al., 2014). 

Green Suits Your Fashion integrates the study of climate communication with the fun of personal expression through fashion. It was completed by forty students, whose Green Suit Photos and pro-environmental messages successfully reached 5,338 people through their many social platforms and applications. This supersedes a factor of 100 instead of the intended ten. Once we collectively tallied the impact of the combined work, many expressed hoots, hollers, and satisfied feelings akin to pleasure activism as “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves…” (brown, 2019). Needless to say, social media’s influence on students’ lives and our world is profound, however we can harness its ability for broad communication through virtual networks and communities to create value in the world. It can be highly beneficial for students to engage in thoughtful dissemination through this familiar and often personal technology to enhance their understanding of this aspect of their lives and their influence as communicators. Students can begin to understand their individual and collective power through an assignment that invites them to voluntarily utilize their pre-existing networks and communities to raise awareness and encourage action for issues that they are studying, such as sustainable fashion. 

a green add on the side of a bus reading "Keep the earth clean, Dress Green"

Photo Credit: Exterior RTD bus advertisement featuring the work of students from the Green Suits Your Fashion assignment

To further  demonstrate the meaning of a non-disposable assignment, the impact of this assignment was amplified when two of the students in the class applied for and received funding from CU’s Mission Zero to “publish” some of these photos and environmental messages as RTD bus ads. They selected several students’ work to feature in both interior and exterior bus advertisements. Along with the student designs, there was a QR code that they added that led to a site on the Inside the Greenhouse website with additional information on local thrift stores and ideas for climate action (and Spanish version). After just three weeks of their ads being in the buses, they reported over 150 uses of the QR code to visit the associated sites. The addition of the QR technology allowed students to track and assess the likely impact of their work. Based in part on the success of their efforts, Max Boykoff (Professor ENVS) led our efforts to apply for and receive funding from the City of Boulder sustainability tax to substantially expand this bus ad campaign and further feature the work of students that began as a class assignment. This winter, buses all over Boulder have celebrated the creative climate messaging and fashionably green expressions of CU students. 

Students participating in Green Suits Your Fashion put their physical selves in service of visual communication to draw attention to the environmental impact of the fashion industry and solutions for sourcing fabulous fashion within their community. Utilization of technology in their communication efforts expanded the reach of their message considerably. The Green Suits Your Fashion assignment linked students’ embodied expression of their sustainable fashion style to evidence-based communication strategies that encourage change in how their community sources their clothing. The bus advertisements are an unlikely and unusual “publishing” of student work that allows the knowledge produced by our students to be put to productive use within their own community.  Our students and our courses can have a positive impact on climate solutions right now. Assignments don’t have to be simulations or dress rehearsals for “real” life. Our courses are real life, and our students are citizens of this world right now. These types of non-disposable assignments can also be material for our students’ resumes upon graduation, complete with web publishing of their contributions for them to reference (Green Suits Your Fashion).

Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to design assignments that are as fun to complete and grade as opening a birthday present. Not only was student feedback on this assignment mostly positive, I can honestly say that it was enormously gratifying to grade each of these student compositions complete with the feedback on their sharings from their community. The comments from team members, moms, and friends were funny, congratulatory, spirited, and moving. Seeing student compositions on the sides of buses as I travel around town is super exciting! As Faculty Advisor for ASSETT, I would be happy to brainstorm with you on designing assignments that creatively utilize technology to bring the amazing work you and your students do in the classroom out into the world. 

Works Cited:

Bhowmik, Avit K, Mark S McCaffrey, Abigail M Ruskey, Chad Frischmann, and Owen Gaffney. 2020. “Powers of 10: Seeking ‘Sweet Spots’ for Rapid Climate and Sustainability Actions between Individual and Global Scales.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 15, no. 9, 2021 

brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

Markowitz, Ezra, Caroline Hodge, Gabriel Harp, Courtney St. John, Sabine M. Marx, Meighen Speiser, Lisa Zaval, and Robert Perkowitz. Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication. ecoAmerica, 2014.

Robinson, Sarah Finnie. Climate Communications 101: The Trusted Messenger. Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, 2019.