Published: Jan. 6, 2019
Green globe with green arrows pointing to the center of it.

In an innovative collaboration, Boulder County, the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado Boulder have joined to teach students about careers in sustainability.   
Sponsored by the Community Engagement Design and Research Center (CEDaR) and offered by the Environmental Studies Program (ENVS), the sustainable communities seminar exposes students to the daily responsibilities of city and county sustainability staff, including protecting the environment while considering economic, social and cultural issues. 

"The class brings sustainability practices to life," says Susie Strife, Boulder County's sustainability coordinator who co-teaches the class with Jonathan Koehn, city of Boulder’s regional sustainability coordinator and Brian Muller from CU Boulder.  "Students come away understanding the various roles that community stakeholders, residents, the private sector and governmental organizations play in making sustainability a reality within the community."  

The popular seminar, which includes numerous guest lectures by sustainability leaders, is open to environmental design, environmental science, business and engineering students. Topics include current issues, such as whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be used on public lands and preparing communities for the effects of climate change.  

Students interview local sustainability practitioners and subsequently choose a local sustainability issue, Strife says. They research various stakeholder views, attend public meetings and then based on their research, make policy and programmatic recommendations to local decision-makers.  

There is so much to learn right in our backyard about sustainability practices, technologies, programs and policies," says Strife.   

Aria Dellepiane, a teaching assistant for the class and a CEDaR staff member says making policy proposals is very relevant to students because they are about to enter the workforce.  

“It’s also beneficial for students to refine their specific sustainability interests because they can enter the workforce based on the area they want to work in,” she says. 

Julianna Bourgeois, who recently graduated with a degree in engineering physics, says that before taking the seminar she was looking at careers in the energy industry; now she’s looking at resource conservation and waste mitigation.  

“I would not have gone in that direction without taking the class,” she says. “It was absolutely my favorite class by far.”  

The class is linked to Boulder County's participation in CU MetroLab, part of the MetroLab Network, a nationwide collection of 35 city-university partnerships focused on bringing data, analytics and innovation to local government. The local MetroLab partnership was organized by CEDaR and Boulder’s Planning, Housing and Sustainability Department as a collaboration between the county, city, students and faculty from multiple disciplines to research, develop and deploy technologies and policy approaches to address common challenges among urban areas.  

"Students in the class have learned the theory of environmental studies for four years, and this seminar gives them an opportunity to understand the real practice of local government," says Muller, who also directs CEDaR.  

As part of the class, each student led a class discussion on their assigned topics and helped collaborate solutions to sustainability challenges, says Gabriella McDonald, 26, who pursued a Program in Environmental Design (ENVD) minor and a Geographic Information Scientists (GIS) certificate at CU Boulder while working as a CEDaR research assistant. The discussions allowed students to take leadership roles and use their skill sets, depending on their majors, she says.  

"Everyone found a voice in that class," McDonald says. "I was really inspired by the participation from my peers and how much they were able to contribute. Seeing our generation motivated to make progressive change was inspiring."   

The next sustainable communities course is scheduled for Spring 2020.