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May 8, 2017

Eco-Rep Program brings leadership and sustainability to the classroom

Collegian file photo

The Eco-Rep program at the University of Massachusetts is run by the students, for the students. This two-credit course offered through the environmental science department allows students to be the teachers, covering environmental sustainability and literacy on campus.

“It is a great program for leadership development because the people who facilitate it are teaching a UMass class essentially. They are leading a discussion section with their peers,” Craig Nicolson, the previous faculty advisor of Eco-Rep for six years and the director of the sustainability science masters program said.

Eco-Rep, first started by alum Josh Stoffel, a sustainability advocate and environmental science major. Stoffel designed the course when finishing his honors thesis project, launching the program in the fall of 2008 as a graduate student on campus.

Stoffel’s goal was to create a course to educate students about environmental literacy, and allow them to be leaders and to advocate for sustainability in the dorms.

“Part of what the students are learning is to explain and communicate these environmental and sustainability issues to their peers and to friends who live in the dorms,” Nicolson said.

Since then the Eco-Rep program has grown from enrolling about 20 students in the course to anywhere between 60 to 80 students a semester. The focus of the program is on student leadership. Each semester, six to eight student facilitators run the discussion-based classes inside residential areas while the student program manager assists in designing the curriculum of the classes.

The Eco-Rep program is not strictly for environmental science majors or students with previous sustainability backgrounds, but welcomes all majors to get involved.

“One of the issues is that students come to UMass with the thought of, ‘I want to change the world, I want to do something to make it better,’ but not really knowing where to apply their youth and their zeal…Eco-Rep is a large way for students who are not coming in as natural resource conservation majors to understand how they can apply whatever they are doing to environmental issues,” Trevor Baptiste, the current faculty advisor, said.
Alex Groblewski, the program manager and environmental science major, said this semester’s curriculum focuses on important environmental issues that need attention today.

“The goals for this semester are helping students to explore and discuss food systems, energy resources, and sustainability in our society, as well as encourage them to participate in community environmental groups,” she said.

Eco-Reps don’t only discuss ideas inside of a classroom every Tuesday or Wednesday night. The group thinks of proactive ways to make an impact on campus and their community, to spread awareness of sustainability issues and to attend campus outreach events.

Each student enrolled in the course must attend at least three campus outreach events and one field trip. Eco-Reps have volunteered at events such as the New2U Tag Sale and UMass tailgates to assist in reducing the amount of waste created by students.

Kevin Hollerbach, a graduate student in the masters of science and sustainability science program and a previous undergraduate science and environmental science major, said during his time as program manager he focused on the reduction of waste on campus.

“One of the things that we did with the Eco-Rep program is that we helped out with the college day barbecue,” Hollerbach said.

By being a presence at the event students stood at each disposable stations, telling people where to put their waste. Hollerbach said because of their efforts the event was “as close to zero waste as possible.”

Jacquelyn Hynes, a graduate student in the masters of science and sustainability science program as well as a previous undergraduate environmental science major, started with the Eco-Rep program her sophomore year at UMass and eventually became program manager.

“It was really great to be a part of that community and actually be leading my own class and seeing students first-hand experiencing that aha moment…you know, ‘Whoa, these problems are really important and I can make a difference in it,’” Hynes said.

The Eco-Rep program introduced the concept of sustainability to Hynes. She has focused her work around the topic ever since. Her current graduate work focuses on urban sustainability, community development and nutrition.

“I learned a lot about the systems that are in place that we are completely disconnected with and how there are extreme negative externalities associated with that. Management of all these systems are so out of place and out of mind,” Hynes said. “I also felt mobilized to make decisions in my own life that could improve or offset the problem.”

Hollerbach said the Eco-Rep program expanded his knowledge of what sustainability is and how it can play into other social justice issues.

“I have realized through the Eco-Rep program that sustainability is much bigger than just the environment….but now I look at it from an environmental justice component too,” he said. “That is something I learned in the Eco-Rep program, that a lot of these topics also have disproportionate negative effects on lower income communities and minority populations.”

Moving forward with the program, Hollerbach hopes to see more student action inside the dorms, creating partnerships with Residential Life to reduce waste.

“It is a valuable resource to have a bunch of students that are really passionate about this physically in the residential halls. The residential halls are such a wasteful place right now that using their passion and what they learn in class would be awesome,” Hollerbach said.

As the new faculty advisor this year, Baptiste is in the process of incorporating more education students into the program to become facilitators and brainstorming new ideas for next year’s classes. Due to the new administration proposing cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and rolling back Barack Obama’s efforts to combat climate change, Baptiste said he is currentlyin the process of revamping the curriculum in response to the new administration.”

Baptiste said the Eco-Rep program will continue to be a tool for educating campus leaders on environmental and sustainability issues through peer discussion and action.

“The power of [Eco-Rep] is that they are not being force-fed by a professor saying ‘Hey this is the problem and this is what you should do,’” he said. “What I do is collect the information and let the students decide how they are going to discuss it with their peers and develop leadership amongst themselves to go out and make change in their world.”

Carson McGrath can be reached at cmcgrath@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @McgrathCarson.

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