John Atkinson: Inspiring Sustainable Living from UB to Costa Rica

UB professor in Costa Rica.

John Atkinson, assistant professor of civil, structural, and environmental engineering, has made spreading the message of sustainability his life’s work, but found that his biggest challenge was reaching enough people and finding ways to get them excited about sustainability. Over the past few months, John has developed several innovative experiences that have made (and will continue to make) a difference in how people think about sustainability.

It all started with a desire to fill what John considered to be a gap in many of his students’ educations. “When I got to UB a few years ago, I noticed pretty quickly that in the engineering school, not many students study abroad. Because engineering-focused international experiences were so impactful for me, I’m hyper-aware of these low numbers.” After talking to some students, he found that most worry about being set back in their studies after a semester abroad. They weren’t going abroad because they couldn’t find a way to fit it into their schedules, but certainly not because they didn’t want to.

John decided to provide a winter opportunity for students to get international experience without being set back, so he worked with the Office of Global Learning to make it happen. “Trevor Poag is a wonderful resource who works with UB faculty to start study abroad programs like mine. He kept me confident throughout the process and connected me with partners in Costa Rica. Support from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Experiential Learning Network provided added energy and motivation. A lot of people on campus want to bring these opportunities to UB students, and the support networks are in place to allow international programs to expand.”

With the help of these networks, John brought sixteen students to Costa Rica over winter break to learn about the country’s agriculture industry, energy systems and ecotourism initiatives. It was hugely successful and confirmed John’s commitment to providing students with these opportunities. “One class can’t satisfy our students’ extensive demand. The infrastructure and the energy are in place to help faculty make these trips happen—they just need to know about it and then take advantage of it.” John hopes that his example inspires other faculty to create these life-changing opportunities for students.

Experiential learning is inherent in study abroad, but John infuses these tools into his “traditional” courses, as well. Three years ago, he created a Sustainability Twitter challenge, called the #365challenge, that he uses in his on-campus course. Each week, students try out impactful, sustainable activities, like #nomeatweek and #shortshowers, and they document their experiences on Twitter. “Some of the challenges are really hard, and some are really easy. I ask them to change one thing in their lives for one week—to feel what it means to have impact—and then they tweet about it.”

This year, John is bringing his #365challenge to the entire UB community. He will be collaborating with us here at the ELN during Discovery Week (April 23-27) to get the whole campus involved in his #emissionLESS challenge. “The single biggest thing that you and I, and nearly every other American, does in terms of our personal consumption is drive a car. I’m asking the whole campus community to drive less that week. Try the train, ride your bike, run to work, carpool. This is one of my favorite weekly challenges because there are some really logical things you can do that make a huge difference. Who knows, maybe we can even solve UB’s parking nightmare while we’re at it.”

This is all part of John’s plan to expand sustainability education beyond the students in his formal courses. “Sustainability runs deep. It needs to be a part of everyone’s life. I made a decision to respond to that…You want to get somebody excited about sustainability, you send them to Costa Rica for three weeks over winter break, or you ask them to tweet about taking the bus.”

Like John, the ELN is of the mindset that getting involved in hands-on experiences is the best way to learn. We offer resources and support to help you bring experiential learning to your students while connecting you to our network of others who can make your mission a reality. Email Mara Huber to talk about possibilities and visit us in 17 Norton to get connected with the ELN!


Written by Amanda Hellwig ‘19