Environmental science class puts sustainability in action

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EVPP 480 planting
Students also planted and mulched saplings as a part of the ongoing Rappahannock Parking Deck Reforestation Project. Photo by Sarah D'Alexander

During the month of April, the students in George Mason University’s Sustainability in Action course (EVPP 480) were incredibly busy making a difference on and off campus.

This spring, 51 students—a record number, according to Environmental Science and Policy Professor Dann Sklarew—enrolled in the three sections of the course team taught by Sklarew, adjunct professor Suzanne Dee, and doctoral student Elizabeth Schierbeek.  Adjunct professor Rupal Mangukiya also assisted. All four of the faculty involved are Mason alumni.

Sklarew designed the course, which serves as a Mason Core: Synthesis option and capstone course for student majoring in environmental and sustainability studies or environmental science, or those pursuing minors in sustainability studies or sustainable enterprise.

While EVPP 480 was offered as an online synchronous course, the students had ample opportunities to literally get their hands dirty with socially distanced community-based service projects. During Earth Month they worked on their required Sustainability Transformation Action Research Team projects for the class.

Sklarew calls the students enrolled in the course “actioneers.”

EVPP 480 Sky Mountain
At Sky Meadows State Park, Mason students did trail work with Mason alumnus Ryan Selove, who is a park ranger there. Photo provided

“Over the past few weeks, actioneers have weeded garlic rows and planted potatoes on an organic farm in Alexandria, armored a mountain path from runoff at Sky Meadows State Park, and cleaned up by kayak and on foot a pickup truck full of trash at Occoquan Regional Park,” Sklarew said, mentioning a few of the projects students tackled this spring. “At each site, a Mason alum who previously took this class served as one of their hosts.”

At the Sky Meadows State Park, the host was Mason alumnus Ryan Selove, BA Integrative Studies ’15, who is a park ranger and the coordinator of volunteers at the park.

In addition, Dee had three teams of students working on different campus composting projects focusing on the Potomac Heights Organic Vegetable Garden, the Innovation Food Forest, and education materials about composting at Mason.

Environmental science majors Jackie Batchelor and Ade Olua and management major Emily Konchan are the team planning a three-bin cinderblock structure for composting at the Potomac Heights garden, to replace the previous structure which was made of wood and “in complete ruins,” they wrote in their proposal.

EVPP 480 Composting
Two EVPP 480 teams worked on planning for three-bin cinderblock structures for composting at the Potomac Heights Organic Vegetable Garden (above) and the Innovation Food Forest. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

“The Potomac Heights and Innovation Food Forest compost projects, which use the same design, will be considered simultaneously for approval by Facilities, and it sounds like they will get approved within the next month or so,” said Dee, who has an MS in environmental science and policy from Mason. “Our plan is to have a summer cohort finish them.”

Students also planted and mulched saplings as a part of the ongoing Rappahannock Parking Deck Reforestation Project, supported by the Office of Sustainability’s Patriot Green Fund and the Greenhouse and Gardens program. The student-led effort is intended to turn the area around the parking deck into a more self-sufficient, biodiverse location on the Fairfax Campus.

“We planted a total eight trees and shrubs, which were designated by the site plan approved and developed by Facilities,” said Honors College student Sophia Chapin, who graduates with her BS in environmental science this month. “The inkberry shrubs provide winter habitat for birds, particularly American robins that also feed on its berries. The flowering dogwoods are great for wildlife such as songbirds and edge species because of their high calcium and fat content. All of the vegetation on site is Virginia native so that as the forested area grows, so does the benefit to our native wildlife.”

EVPP 480 organic
One student group weeded garlic rows and planted potatoes on the organic Arcadia Farm in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo provided

Sklarew said that students in the class can volunteer to help with other teams’ projects. “Service learners from this cohort have logged more than 1,670 sustainability-advancing hours since January,” he added.

More than 450 students have taken EVPP 480 since it was first offered in Spring 2011. Over that decade, Mason students taking the class have contributed more than 16,000 service hours to sustainability-related projects on and off Mason’s campuses.

If you are an alumnus/a or friend of Mason with ideas for future pro-sustainability service learning or action research projects, please contact Dr. Sklarew at dsklarew@gmu.edu or 703-993-2012.