Above image credit to Leah Davidson. All other images credit to Mary Kate McMullen.

Integrating sustainability across the curriculum

 

As a rising senior in Health and Societies, Mary-Katharine McMullen did not come from a background in sustainability, but when her former professor from the Department of History and Sociology of Science, Dr. Ann Greene, reached out about an opportunity to join the Integrating Sustainability Across the Curriculum (ISAC) program, she jumped at the opportunity. Founded in 2012 as part of the Penn Green Campus Partnership, ISAC provides funding for student research assistants to work alongside Penn faculty to integrate sustainability into the materials of new and existing courses.

 

On PECO's green roof

On PECO's green roof

Balancing Business and History

During her eight-week summer internship, Mary Kate worked on two course projects: Dynamics 615: Global Pennovation with Prof. Steven Finn, Managing Director of the sustainability consulting firm ResponsEcology, and Energy in American History with Greene.  

For Prof. Finn, Mary Kate looked into the sustainability efforts of large corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Tesla, which often involved watching TED Talks and perusing articles to learn about efforts to improve the environmental impact of their operations. Finn’s class is geared toward graduate students and involves an in-depth study of solutions to an environmental issue from a business perspective. At the start of her internship, Prof. Finn had not yet chosen a topic, so Mary Kate had a chance to investigate everything from oceans and health and wellness to the food-energy-water nexus, the topic they eventually settled on. 

Amassing Skills and Experiences

In previous summers, Mary Kate worked in a lab on spinal cord injury research. The ISAC program allowed her to develop a new set of transferable skills through business and social science research. For example, with Prof. Greene, she looked at the mid-Atlantic energy portfolio. Prof. Greene received the ISAC grant to improve the integration of contemporary energy issues into her class syllabus through suggestions of reading and assignment topics. Mary Kate enjoyed immersing herself in university archives and delving into manuscripts dating back to the 17th century. “I was able to learn about the topics that students from the 1800s were supposed to cover during their undergraduate career, such as Latin and Greek philosophy. I was also looking at receipts from old university purchases of food and equipment. My job was to try to read energy into these subjects,” said Mary Kate. “I had amazing access to Prof. Greene and worked 1:1 with her for a month, which was amazing and completely unexpected.”

From compiling databases of books, websites, and articles on environmental topics, Mary Kate gained an understanding of how to determine source credibility. She commented, “Prof. Greene and I had many conversations about this topic and I put together a guide on pitfalls in finding sources, which will most likely be used by students in her class.”

Another highlight of her research was meeting with Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES) to talk about the chilled water supply at Penn. Mary Kate explained, “Not many people think about how the university makes it possible to switch on a light or tap, so that conversation offered an interesting perspective on sustainability in an institutional context.”

Pursuing New Passions

On the weekends, Mary Kate continued her education through field trips sponsored by FRES - she enjoyed a trip to the Morris Arboretum, where she toured the horticulture center, powered by geothermal energy, and explored PECO’s green roof.

Horticulture Center

Horticulture Center

After a summer immersed in interdisciplinary research with ISAC, Mary Kate can see herself working as a policy expert in an energy-related field, a job she had never considered before. She is also continuing her involvement as a research assistant in the History and Sociology of Science Department during the fall semester and considering enrolling in a class on energy and technology. “Climate change and sustainability now seem very immediate,” she concluded. “There’s a great opportunity for making an impact.”

Natural beauty at the Morris Arboretum

Natural beauty at the Morris Arboretum