Research News

PPE capstone trains leaders to make the world better

Concept of a group project.


Published May 16, 2022

David Gray.
“The work I am seeing them accomplish has been remarkable. And they are all excited to share their experiences with others. ”
David Emmanuel Gray, interim director of undergraduate studies
Department of Philosophy

UB philosophy professor David Emmanuel Gray thought he had a good formula. He partnered with UB’s Experiential Learning Network to design a project-based course for his Philosophy, Politics and Economics undergraduate capstone course. He even got a small grant so each team in the class gets $1,000 for research and materials.

Gray’s clear challenge to students: Find a way to concretely make a social improvement, and then do it.

Within sight of the finals, Integrating PPE (PHI 485) has hit its collective stride, exceeding even Gray’s expectations.

“Our students are taking this really seriously,” says Gray, interim director of undergraduate studies in UB’s Department of Philosophy, College of Arts and Sciences. “They are getting out there in the community and trying to make a difference. To me, that is really impressive.”

The individual projects have ranged from city to regional to beyond. They have already garnered admiration and interest from other faculty. The $1,000 has gone from buying cash cards for UB students to use at the North Tonawanda farmers market to funding anti-malarial mosquito nets in Togo, West Africa.

“The work I am seeing them accomplish has been remarkable,” Gray says. “And they are all excited to share their experiences with others.”

To that end, Gray plans a combination celebration/showcase. Each of the three teams of five students assigned to make some definable social improvement will present at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday to PPE faculty and representatives from various local organizations, both within and outside of UB.

The May 17 meeting scheduled for Clemens Hall 119 is the unique course’s  final exam. Their work already has garnered admiration and interest from other faculty. Visitors and guests are welcome.

“When we developed the PPE program, we wanted to make sure that students were gaining not just a deep theoretical understanding of the world around them, but the practical skills needed to make it a better place,” says Ryan Muldoon, director of UB’s new Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program.

“We’ve carefully designed the PPE program to give students the tools they need to thrive in a world full of complex problems,” he says. “The capstone gives them a taste of the positive impact that they can have after graduation. Its success demonstrates that UB is training the next generation of leaders.”

Gray mentioned three projects. Then he followed by saying there are others of distinction as well. 

Helping students prepare for college

“Team Prosper” is concerned about getting high school students from traditionally underrepresented groups prepared for college. To that end, Team Prosper has partnered with Homework Helpers to have UB students act as tutors for students from the Buffalo Public Schools.

“College prep is a goal of ours,” says Julia Dietz, a political science major. “But our main goal is broader than that as we are more trying to address educational inequality and a lack of access to resources for students at underprivileged schools.”

Gray says the “cool part here” is that Homework Helpers is a New York City organization that was started by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Her office has wanted Homework Helpers to expand outside of New York City, and so they now see UB as sparking an initiative that will spread across SUNY and other colleges/universities,” says Gray.

“With such forces marshaled, this has potential to be big.”

Partnering with NT farmers market

“Team UB Munchies” wants UB students to eat healthier. So UB Munchies partnered with the City of North Tonawanda to host UB Day at their farmers market on May 7. They are also trying to get a bus line established to regularly go to that market.

“This course was an excellent vehicle for our project to grow from start to finish,” says Benjamin Weiner, an economics major and PPE minor.

“I really felt that Team UB Munchies grew closer together in the process of completing our nutritional awareness project this semester. The fact that we were able to successfully run our UB Day with the necessary transportation from UB Parking and Transportation Services and have joint collaboration with our vouchers for students through the North Tonawanda farmers market shows that when hard work is put in, change is possible, no matter what it may seem like at first.”

The project already has been the subject of an article in the student newspaper The Spectrum. Other campus publications plan Munchie articles, as well.

Reducing food waste in landfills

“Team ENACT” is concerned about reducing food waste in landfills. They have partnered with Farmer Pirates Compositing to set up a community compost drop off location in Depew. The goal is to study the efficacy of residential composting programs. This project has involved a “lot of wrangling” with the various officials in Depew, says Gray.

“Prior to this project, I don’t think we were aware of how much stigma surrounds composting,” says Christina Serghany, finance major and PPE minor. “We hope we can eventually get to a point where composting becomes as common practice as recycling empty bottles.”

“I confess I do worry that this is the one project that might fall through because of Department of Sanitation concerns,” Gray says. “If that happens, though, this will be one of those spectacular failures that offer students an opportunity to learn some deep lessons about the obstacles to social change.”

Mara Huber, director of the Experiential Learning Network, who networked with the class, praised what she called Integrating PPE’s “notion of embracing potential failure.”

“When faculty connect students with real-world challenges and support them in their efforts to add value, there is always growth and discovery, and endless surprises. David’s course is such an amazing opportunity for our students and the communities that stand to benefit from their talents.”

Gubaz Giorgadze, president of UB’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics Club, called the course an opportunity to “be a part of something that transcends far beyond the classroom.”

“I believe we are making the world a better place with every child that is connected to a tutor,” says Giorgadze, a member of Team Prosper. “I hope our initiative will influence students from other universities and expands the Homework Helpers program to reach students from across the nation.”

Muldoon expresses his interest and support in simple terms.

“I can’t wait to see what these students will continue to achieve,” he says.