Sustainability spotlight

Journalism courses merge sustainability and service learning

By Ariday Guerrero and Kristina Beverlin

This spring, students in associate professor of journalism Simran Sethi’s courses are getting hands-on experience addressing issues of sustainability. While one class is working locally to explore the impacts of food systems in Douglas County, another took its talent on the road to assist with solar panel installation in Oakland, Calif. Based around online media and service-learning experiences, both courses employ a paperless model that encourages environmentally savvy learning.

Studying sustainable food systems

In its third year, Sethi’s Media and the Environment class is working with the recently appointed Douglas County Food Policy Council, a group focused on making food the solution to many of the economic, environmental, geographic and health problems currently being faced by Douglas County. The council consists of members who represent academia, agriculture, commerce, entrepreneurs, grocers and restaurateurs. Students in the course are assisting the council with its task of creating a sustainable and well-built food system by researching how a locally-based system will affect the people of Douglas County.

The class is investigating what a sustainable food system means to citizens throughout the county. They are interviewing city of Lawrence and Douglas County officials as well as representatives from local organizations, health care providers, businesses, educational institutions and agricultural operations. At the end of the semester, the students will present their findings to the council.

Along with the service-learning project, Media and the Environment students are learning about the media's role in the environmental conversation. Class discussions are centered on the importance of understanding the deeper meanings behind frequently used environmental words like green, healthy, local, natural and sustainable, with food as the backdrop for most conversations. The class also focuses on the relationships different cultures and religious groups have with food as well as the influences food has on energy, politics, poverty and, of course, the environment. Each week, the students share their thoughts on what they have learned through the class blog.

A Sustainable Spring Break

Meanwhile, Sethi’s new course, Green Reporting, Green Building, Green Justice, is merging the disciplines of architecture, journalism and environmental studies to explore the impacts of “green collar jobs” – blue-collar jobs benefitting the environment – on industry and the economy. It also uses advocacy journalism as a tool to highlight environmental injustices and its intersection with green building and design.

While many students slapped on swimming suits and sunscreen to bathe in UV rays this spring break, the 12 students in this class were busy transmitting sunlight into solar energy for residents in low-income Oakland, Calif., neighborhoods. The class spent one week in California’s Bay Area exploring the sustainability movement from the inside out, meeting with environmental leaders, installing solar panels with Oakland-based nonprofit GRID Alternatives and documenting their experiences through social media.

This semester, students in Green Reporting, Green Building, Green Justice have studied sustainability through both live and virtual lectures. Leaders in the green sector of all three disciplines have talked to the class about where and how “green jobs” are affecting the nation. Sethi challenges students to conduct all coursework through Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. The electronic correspondence is also a part of the course’s analysis of how social media can play a central role in environmental activism.

During their unique Spring Break venture, students posted on Facebook and Twitter, providing minute-to-minute updates through writing, photos and video featured on, a leading site for sustainable businesses focused on the “triple bottom line”: supporting people, protecting the planet and generating profit. Feedback through these means helped the group gain input into their conversation about the trip’s core themes.

Upon their return to KU, the students will showcase the trip with four short video presentations on the continuum of green jobs, environmental justice, solar panel installation with GRID Alternatives and green building and design, synthesizing a week’s worth of sustainable community immersion and social networking documentation.

Find them online

Media and the Environment class blogs are posted at, and some blog posts will be included on the “Locavore” blog at as part of the Lawrence Journal-World WellCommons forum. For more information about the Douglas County Food Policy Council, or to attend a council meeting, visit

The final videos for Green Reporting, Green Building, Green Justice will be featured on, and the class can be followed on Twitter by searching “#KUJ500” and “#greenjobsku” or on Facebook at “KU J500: Green Jobs, Green Reporting, Green Justice.”

Campus closeup
Amanda Schwegler, assistant director, Center for Service Learning
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