Atkinson boosts sustainability opportunities for UB students


By PETER MURPHY republished from UBNow.

Published February 2, 2018

“Sustainability isn't a fad. As educators, we need to respond. ”
John D. Atkinson, assistant professor
department of civil, structural and environmental engineering

John D. Atkinson believes engineering students want to study abroad, but struggle to fit semester-long trips into dense schedules.

So he found a way they can have that opportunity.

Atkinson, assistant professor of environmental engineering, was one of eight UB faculty members who traveled to Costa Rica last June as part of UB’s first-ever Study Abroad incubator, a program for faculty and staff interested in designing and leading new study abroad initiatives.

“Costa Rica is fascinating,” Atkinson says. “They are highly ranked in global sustainability surveys. Almost 98 percent of their electricity is from renewable resources. Over 25 percent of their land is protected forests.”

During the trip, “I saw the implementation of what I discuss in my on-campus class,” he says. “I needed to get students there, fast.”

Atkinson developed “CIE 464: Sustainability in Latin America: A Case Study in Costa Rica”

In less than five months, working with advocates in the Office of International Education, UB Sustainability, the Experiential Learning Network, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and SEAS’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion on the trip’s logistics.

Last week, he and 16 students returned to Buffalo after spending more than two weeks in the Central American country.

“The trip reinforced what I want to be doing in my life,” says Kaitlyn Alcazaren, a senior environmental engineering major. “It might put you out of your comfort zone, but there’s nothing like getting out of the classroom, being in a gorgeous place and learning about super-interesting topics.”

The course focused on Costa Rica’s agriculture, energy and ecotourism industries. Students toured and met with professionals from Costa Rica’s top five energy sources: hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, bagasse (sugarcane waste that is burned) and solar. They also spent time in the capital city, the cloud forest and at the beach.

Atkinson describes the trip as an overwhelming success, showing “that UB engineering and science students want to, can and should study abroad.”

He plans to offer the course again during Winter Session 2019, and encourages students from majors across campus to consider applying next fall.

Now that the inaugural trip is complete and the spring semester has begun, Atkinson says he’s excited to be back in the classroom for his other sustainability course, CIE 447. He has expanded — and will rename — his #447challenge, a Twitter-based experiential learning project he developed to show students the difference between what people think it means to be sustainable and what is actually required.

Atkinson encourages students to try one activity each week to improve personal sustainability, and then tweet about it. They might, for example, try going vegetarian (#nomeatweek) or donating unused clothing (#springcleaning).

Atkinson brought the #447challenge to local and virtual audiences last October when he spoke at the annual TEDxBuffalo event. His talk, Sustainability Forward, aimed to motivate people to live the sustainable lives he believes they desire.

Using CIE 447 as an example, he encouraged his audience to step up. “No one is going to solve this for you,” he said in the talk. “Rise up. Take responsibility for your actions. Mobilize your people. Now, more than ever, change will only proceed through bottom-up, individual-level lifestyle modifications. I challenge everyone listening to change something in your life.”

Atkinson says the study abroad course, the #447challenge and the TEDxBuffalo talk are all part of his larger goal to increase and diversify opportunities for students to learn about sustainability. He notes that more and more students approach him about sustainability careers each year.

“Students are smart. They forecast where things are going, and appreciate that this is the path to be on, independent of major,” Atkinson says. “They want to know more, read more, take more classes.

“Sustainability isn’t a fad. As educators, we need to respond.”