Charting a course

Butte College instructors work toward creating sustainability degree

Mimi Riley helped create the sustainability credential program at Butte College a decade ago. She’s now trying to expand it to a full associate’s degree.

Mimi Riley helped create the sustainability credential program at Butte College a decade ago. She’s now trying to expand it to a full associate’s degree.

Photo by Josh Cozine

Students attending Butte College in order to transfer to a four-year university may have a new option on their plates come 2019: an associate’s degree in sustainability.

At least, that’s the plan as Mimi Riley, a sociology instructor, sees it. Riley helped create the sustainability studies certificate program back in 2007, when modeling sustainability became one of Butte College’s priorities. She is now hoping to further develop that program into a full associate’s degree.

The college won numerous awards, including the National Green Power Leadership Award from the EPA, when it first adopted sustainability as a core value. But all of its recognition was facility-related, owing in large part to the multiple solar arrays that supply 85 percent of the campus’ total power usage. On the brightest days during nonpeak hours, the school goes grid-positiveproducing more power than it uses. That’s a great accomplishment, Riley said, but now it’s time to refocus on sustainability education.

Riley and a small group of faculty and students met earlier this month to discuss the next steps in the planning process. The goal is to make the degree easy to access for the community college students by making sure all courses transfer to four-year universities, unlike what’s currently in place.

“Relabeling and repackaging already-offered courses” will be a primary part of the efforts to get the degree green-lighted, Riley said. She hopes to raise attendance of program classes and make the degree easier to access by ensuring all courses meet the proper requirements under Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC) guidelines.

Riley plans to have all sustainability courses labeled with a green leaf next to their description in the course catalog in a manner similar to Chico State’s current sustainability minor. The green leaf notation would allow students to easily identify which of the courses offered will count toward the sustainability degree. Students who choose the green leaf classes in each of the main areas of instruction (English, math, science, etc.) will nearly complete the new degree while checking off their transfer requirements. Students aiming at the associate’s degree will need to take one final “capstone” course that ties all the classes together with an internship component.

Being more transfer-friendly by ensuring the sustainability program courses cover general ed requirements for University of California and California State University schools will open the degree up to a lot more students who may already be interested in studying sustainability but can’t spare the excess units in their schedule, Riley says.

John Dahlgren agrees. He teaches Architectural Drafting Applications at Butte College and is also a member of the campus’ sustainability steering committee, working closely with Riley in developing the framework for the proposed new degree.

His students are working on an eight-week final project designing tiny houses, a nontraditional drafting assignment Dahlgren uses as both a fun and timely project, and a way to make students think more sustainably.

“It makes you really think about what you really need. It’s actually really fun,” said Grant Martine, a student in the class. He plans to pursue a career in mechanical engineering and says the project has made him excited for future green technologies he’s learned about while drafting his tiny house, such as the possibility of solar-paneled windows.

The idea of earning a sustainability degree while finishing transfer requirements sounded appealing to Martine. “It could help open doors you didn’t know were available. It might help if your first job doesn’t work out.”

Along with having his architecture students draft up tiny house concepts, Dahlgren teaches other tech-related courses. He also advises student clubs and other groups on campus, where he constantly stresses sustainability principles. One of the groups built a mobile solar phone and laptop charging station that is wheeled around campus during events to show the viability of solar, while another competed in the Solar Regattaa boat race where each vessel must be powered by 100 percent solar energy.

His students are excited, said Dahlgren, when it comes to learning about new sustainable technologies. “It gives them a sense of agency to be a part of the solution, rather than despair.”

The next steps in green-lighting the sustainability degree, Riley says, will be reaching out to faculty in the counseling and advising departments about how to make students aware of the new program, and classifying current courses already offered at Butte as transferable under the CSU sustainability minor introduced in the 2015-16 school year.

Many of the courses under Butte’s sustainability studies certificate, such as Our Sustainable Future, Sustaining Life on Earth, Environmental Economics and World Food and Hunger Issues, already cover the same topics as the CSU sustainability courses by initial design, said Riley, and should only need to be updated to reflect as much, with little to no change to curriculum. “I think it will sail through,” she said. “Ten years ago [the certificate program] sailed right through and that was with needing all new classes.”

Riley expects the approval process will still take some time, and hopes to see the degree offered in fall of 2019.

Creation of the degree also depends on showing a “community need” for it, she said.

“We’re going to need a lot more students trained in sustainability,” Riley said on the matter, “to start fixing and remediating the damages we’ve done to our ecosphere.”