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University Colloquium

Two decades of charting the course for a sustainable future

When Florida Gulf Coast University opened 20 years ago, its founders made sure the new institution didn’t just talk the talk about an educational commitment to the environment and sustainability.

In 1997, FGCU quickly showed it would walk the walk with the foundational establishment of “University Colloquium: A Sustainable Future.”

Waste to energy plant
Students in Associate Professor Gerry Segal’s Colloquium class get a multi-sensory encounter with garbage at the Lee County Waste-to-Energy Plant.

That January, at a Deans Council meeting, the course’s concept was outlined as follows: “We have made a commitment as a university to make environmental education an integral part of our identity. One of our university-wide outcomes is that all students will develop ‘an ecological perspective.’ A way to accomplish this perspective is to devise a course, or group of experiences, with an environmental focus that all FGCU students must complete, and in which faculty from all four colleges (now five) would be involved. Because ‘ecology’ applies to our total living space and interrelationships, human and natural, it is relevant to all our disciplines and professions. Thus, an ecology course would touch on all nine of the university-wide goals and outcomes, and more. Students would not only be introduced to FGCU values, they would participate in them.”

And so a required, three-credit-hour, undergraduate course was created for upperclassmen that would, in essence, require all FGCU students to stop and smell the flowers. And to think about how those flowers got there. And to speculate as to what the health of the garden in which those flowers grow will be years down the road. And most importantly, to learn how to ensure there is a garden for future generations to enjoy.

University Colloquium has been the signature course at FGCU for two decades, and has won widespread praise. In 2016, the program earned the Chrysalis Award in education from the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. With its community-inclusion and service-learning components, Colloquium not only has prodded each and every FGCU undergraduate student to open their eyes, minds and hearts to the world around them, but also has built a lasting bond between the university and the Southwest Florida community that serves as the course’s extended teachers and classrooms.

“University Colloquium is not just a ‘graduation requirement,’ but instead is a fully immersive, interdisciplinary experience that reflects several high-impact educational practices and advances a unique characteristic of the university: sustainability,” said Kris De Welde, associate dean of university-wide programs and faculty engagement for undergraduate studies and a sociology professor, who oversees the program. “The course serves as a steward for the university mission, vision and guiding principles in multiple ways.”

An educational evolution

Just as FGCU has evolved over two decades, University Colloquium has undergone change. A university-wide review and analysis of the program by those who coordinate and teach it in 2015-16 led to a Sustainability Chautauqua (the Iroquois word Chautauqua means “two moccasins tied together” – just as Colloquium ties together ideas about sustainability and our world) this past fall that brought together more than 100 FGCU faculty and administrators and community leaders at the Emergent Technologies Institute. The idea was to create conversation to strengthen community-university partnerships and to collaborate on exploring new efforts to address the economics, equity and environment that comprise the so-called triple bottom line of sustainability.

“University Colloquium is broadening its focus, moving toward sustainability education rather than environmental education,” said Brenda Thomas, Colloquium coordinator, instructor and chair of the University Colloquium Advisory Council. “It is the interdisciplinary nature of the course that is its greatest strength. Students and faculty from a broad spectrum of disciplines and perspectives can and do learn from each other when they come together in the classroom.

“The course was created with environmental education in mind, but the field of sustainability has changed significantly in the last 20 years,” Thomas said. “There are three ‘Ps’ to consider when you examine sustainability: people, planet and profit. The goal is for Colloquium to more deliberately examine all three of those Ps, not just one.”


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Web Extra IconFGCU Video featuring the evolution of the Colloquium program.

A great example was a Colloquium field trip in early March led by Associate Professor Gerry Segal, who teaches management in the Lutgert College of Business. He took 20 students into the heart of Lee County farm country to the Waste-to-Energy Plant. Part of the massive Lee County Resource Recovery Facility off Buckingham Road – where all county trash hauled in by a never-ending procession of trucks through a maze of roads and ramps is sorted for reusable and recyclable materials – the plant, built and operated by Covanta Energy, gets what operators call the “lowest-value waste” and, through combustion, converts garbage into enough electricity to power 30,000 homes.

After a video presentation in the business offices on the plant’s third floor, the class donned plastic hard hats, fought the inevitable stench while watching huge front-loaders move piles of rubbish into the fire pits, and got behind the scenes with an operator monitoring a flashy command room that resembled NASA mission control.

“This is a great example of using technology to solve environmental problems,” Segal said. “When people throw something ‘away,’ they need to know there is no such place as ‘away.’ They need to understand the impact of their choices on the environment.”

Meanwhile, a few miles away in downtown Fort Myers that same week, Larry Byrnes, adjunct instructor and former College of Education dean, was introducing two dozen students to recycling of a different sort – the repurposing and rebirth of a once-decaying urban area.

With student naturalist Nick Betancourt, a senior business management major, doing much of the talking, the Colloquium crew did a walking tour that began at the Uncommon Friends sculpture and fountain in Centennial Park, and ended outside the tony Indigo Hotel and classic Post Office Arcade at a 20-by-100-foot, ceramic-tiled wall mural titled “Fort Myers: An Alternative History” that encapsulates the city’s formative years. It was on the mural, created in 1999 by artist and photographer Barbara Jo Revelle, that Byrnes pointed out to the class the historic significance of two subjects featured prominently both in the artwork and in Fort Myers’ diverse history – Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs, and soldiers of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops that defended Fort Myers from Confederate attack in the final days of the Civil War.

FGCU Students Canoe at Vester Marine Field Station
Students canoe through the mangroves out of the Vester Marine and Environmental Science Research Field Station in Bonita Springs.

Betancourt, meanwhile, offered his fellow students more contemporary city history, such as the time an exhibition of paintings by shock-rocker Marilyn Manson was featured at a nearby art gallery. Yet at the same time, Betancourt, a Fort Myers native, also pointed out at each stop how the downtown area – which businesses abandoned as they moved south down the Tamiami Trail decades ago – has been rejuvenated into a magnificent cluster of eclectic boutiques, galleries, restaurants, a theater, downtown library, tourist attractions and scenic waterfront, with much of the district’s elegant, early 1900s architecture intact and restored. Betancourt even pointed out how the sidewalks are exceptionally wide by today’s standards; architects designed more spacious walkways intentionally to encourage more pedestrian traffic.

“I grew up during the city’s rebirth,” Betancourt said. “It went from a place most people were ashamed of to a place where I can now say that I’m proud to be from.”

Besides what Byrnes calls the “new urbanism” that Betancourt touched on that promotes walkable communities – “The idea is that cities are designed for people and not automobiles,” Byrnes said – he pointed out associated “themes” between Colloquium and the Fort Myers tour. “A major theme of the Colloquium is creating and maintaining civil and sustainable communities. The goal is to have students understand what the city of Fort Myers is doing to be civil and sustainable. We also study cities around the world focused on the same theme,” he said.

“Sense of place is a sub theme within the major theme,” Byrnes continued. “The goal is to have students experience the sights, sounds and ambience of a rejuvenated downtown Fort Myers. Another theme is ecological literacy – the goal is to have students understand the environmental, economic, political and social characteristics of cities, states and nations becoming civil and sustainable. And another goal is to help students understand that they have spheres of interest and spheres of influence regarding environmental sustainability.”

A natural foundation

Of course, University Colloquium also remains true to its ecological roots, as Brenda Brooks would point out. Executive director of the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) Land & Water Trust that manages the natural water flow in south Lee and north Collier counties, Brooks, who earned a master’s degree in environmental science at FGCU, is as loyal a champion of Colloquium as anyone.

“As a graduate student, I was not required to take the class,” said Brooks, who serves as community partner representative on the Colloquium advisory council. “However, as FGCU’s first campus naturalist, I assisted professors and instructors on their Colloquium field trips around campus. When I started working at CREW in 2005, we already had Colloquium field trips, and we continue to host them.

“It’s exciting when you get a class of FGCU students with diverse backgrounds and majors out on the trails in CREW,” Brooks said. “Despite their diverse backgrounds, nature has a way of bringing everyone together to learn the value of wetlands, wildlife habitat and our sense of place in these natural systems. These experiential opportunities promote discussions as well as appreciation and a greater degree of understanding.”

That feeling of togetherness wasn’t lost on Zaire Benjamin, a junior elementary education major who took Colloquium this past fall with instructor Sarah Davis. Benjamin enjoyed putting a recreational activity she loves, canoeing, to practical educational use in the course by paddling to see firsthand the forests of backwater mangroves that her class had studied on campus – “plus I got to see dolphins,” she said.

But for Benjamin, the benefits of Colloquium were also social, thanks to the course’s interdisciplinary nature. “I wasn’t too sure about the class at first … I mean, as an education major, what was I doing here?” she said. “But as a transfer student (from State College of Florida in Bradenton), I didn’t know a lot of people at FGCU, and through Colloquium, I got to meet students with different majors, different backgrounds, different perspectives. It was a great experience.”

Just as CREW’s Brooks serves as a prime example of University Colloquium’s innumerable contributions to The FGCU Effect – inspiring those who inspire others – another might be 2014 environmental studies graduate Darrel Bagiotti. As leader of a team of about 140 workers leading the ground fight against the Zika virus in Miami-Dade County last year as operations manager of a satellite office for Clarke, an Illinois-based global producer of green environmental products and services, Bagiotti hasn’t forgotten where his educational foundation comes from.

“FGCU embodies and creates stewardship,” he said. “And with Colloquium, with me being in environmental science, I got to know business students and those from other majors, and work alongside them. Colloquium also opened me up to see things in a different light … implement more of a sustainability aspect, see the other side of the story. From the field trips to the classroom experience, it was a valuable, well-developed course.”


GOALS OF COLLOQUIUM

Designed to explore the concept of sustainability as it relates to a variety of considerations and forces in the environment, University Colloquium considers ecological, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic and political influences with the following goals:

  • To provide a “sense of place” and an understanding of the unique ecological features of your environment.
  • To assist in developing an ecological perspective and a commitment to community awareness and involvement in order for students to know issues related to economic, social and ecological sustainability; to analyze and evaluate ecological issues locally and globally; and to participate in projects requiring awareness and/or analysis of ecological and environmental issues.
  • To provide experiences toward effective communication and critical-thinking skills as well as the university’s stated mission of practicing and promoting environmental sustainability and encouraging civic responsibility.
  • To enable a practical understanding of sustainability, of environmental education and of ecological literacy.
FGCU students learn in historic downtown Ft. Myers
Instructor Larry Byrnes leads students on a tour of historic downtown Fort Myers.

OBJECTIVES OF SUSTAINABILITY

FGCU alumni should:

  • Understand the concept of sustainability and how to implement it in their work and personal lives.
  • Value the environment and other people and cultures.
  • Have local and global perspectives.
  • Be a lifelong agent for sustainable change.

THREE SHINING STARS
Although hundreds of faculty and adjunct instructors have made immeasurable contributions to the success of “University Colloquium: A Sustainable Future” in its 20 years, we submit these three names as trailblazers of this meaningful program:

  • Peter Blaze Corcoran, director of FGCU’s Center for Environmental Sustainability Education and professor of environmental studies.
    One of the architects of the course 20 years ago, this distinguished professor and author has made global impact in environmental and sustainability education.
    – Edwin “Win” Everham, professor and program leader of environmental studies.
    Another founding faculty member, he also was one of the developers of Colloquium and was instrumental in establishing the campus naturalists.
    – Jennifer Macbeth, biology instructor.
    University Colloquium coordinator Brenda Thomas says Macbeth has been teaching the course longer than any full-time FGCU faculty member.

WHAT’S NEXT
Organizers identified recurring themes that emerged at the Sustainability Chautauqua at FGCU’s Emergent Technologies Institute in fall 2016 that can be applied to University Colloquium specifically, to FGCU in general and to Southwest Florida regionally:
– Sustainability is about more than just the environment and should be looked at more broadly, incorporating all three components — economics, equity and environment — of the triple bottom line of sustainability.
– Strengthening connections between FGCU and community partners is critical and we should seek and develop opportunities to work together on sustainability-related issues.
– The conversation should be ongoing — FGCU and the community should work toward a sustainable community together.

A BLAZING START 20 YEARS AGO
“… It follows from the premise that being an educated person includes being ecologically literate that we must understand ecological literacy. So we are going to have a sustained conversation about ecological literacy.
“It is important to point out that some of these conversations are quite new. The definitions of ‘ecological literacy’ or ‘sustainability’ or even of ‘environmental education’ are debatable, emergent, inchoate … I encourage you to claim this Colloquium. This should be an adventure.”
— Peter Blaze Corcoran, director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education at FGCU and professor of environmental studies, in his first address to University Colloquium in August 1997