Two professors at Sullivan Foundation partner school Hollins University last semester launched a one-year seminar built around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and put students to work addressing the goals of their choice with their own projects designed to impact their community.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a set of 17 interconnected global objectives that serve as “a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all people and the world.”

Assistant Professor of Education Teri Wagner and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Mary Jane Carmichael answered the UN’s call by launching the new first-year seminar entitled, “Ask Not What Your Community Can Do for You: Sustainability and Social Innovation.” Under Wagner’s leadership, the course was extended into the 2022 January Short Term (J-term).

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The was also supported by student success leader Zahin Mahbuba, who was selected as a 2021-22 University Innovation Fellow by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Fellows design experiences to help their peers gain the creative confidence, agency and entrepreneurial mindset needed to address global challenges.

“It was just serendipitous that Zahin ended up as our SSL,” Wagner said. “One of the reasons it worked out so well is that my dissertation centered on design-based learning and how you implement it into the classroom. With Zahin doing this internship, we spent a lot of time brainstorming and thinking through the course together.”

“Sustainability and Social Innovation is based on the SDGs,” Wagner said. “Students in the first-year seminar dug into those goals and ranked the three that interested them the most. From those rankings, we divided the students into four groups, asked each group to focus on a specific SDG, and had them identify a problem in the local community that they’d like to solve. We then connected each group with a community organization in the Roanoke Valley that is working on initiatives related to that goal. Students in the first-year seminar spent the fall term planning and designing projects, and those in the J-term extension implemented them.”

The groups chose the SDGs “Good Health and Well-Being,” “Quality Education,” “Gender Equality,” and “Life on Land” for their respective projects. To secure funding, each team in the first-year seminar applied for a Warren W. Hobbie Ethics and Service Endowment grant. The Hobbie Endowment provides Hollins students with a program of experiential or service learning opportunities that require them to confront values or ethical issues. “They had to specify what they intended to purchase and how much it was going to cost,” Wagner said. “Each group received a grant, and the awards ranged from $550 to more than $800.”

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The group centering on “Good Health and Well-being” partnered with Carilion Children’s, which provides pediatric programs and services to residents of Roanoke and southwest Virginia. Carilion in turn linked the group with New Horizons Healthcare, a not-for-profit, community-based family health center that cares for underserved patients in the greater Roanoke area. The team put together “health bins” for New Horizon that contained shampoo, deodorant, soap, lotion, aspirin, ibuprofen, cough/cold medicine, sanitary products, and other items. Over $550 in supplies were donated.

For the “Quality Education” goal, another group worked closely with Roanoke’s West End Center for Youth, which champions youth development and literacy. “The group learned about how so many children are way behind in reading due to the pandemic,” Wagner said, “so they purchased all kinds of reading materials, flash cards, games, and other supplies, such as notebooks, for the West End Center. They also bought them subscriptions to Hooked on Phonics and an online program where students can practice their reading skills.” A Hollins faculty member generously matched the $550 Hobbie Grant, so a total of $1,100 was devoted to the project.

The “Gender Equality” group collaborated with Planned Parenthood Roanoke to address the issue of “period poverty,” a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene tools and education. The group used its $700 Hobbie Grant to create 250 “period packs—zippered black pouches containing tampons, pads, hand sanitizer and peppermint tea. The packs will be distributed to students in local schools.

The danger of invasive plant species in the region informed the work of the “Life on Land” team. “Working with the Hollins Tree Committee, this group received $862 in Hobbie Grant funds and purchased four trees that they planted on campus—two red maples and two white oaks,” Wagner said. “The students also wrote 500-word articles on different topics that will be published in an upcoming guide for “Plant Southwest Virginia Natives,” a campaign that raises awareness, appreciation and application of native plants in the region’s landscapes. Additional educational outreach related to the tree planting is in progress, Wagner said.

Wagner will be teaching “Sustainability and Social Innovation” again next fall and during the 2023 J-term. “As soon as the students are assigned to teams, I plan on engaging them with their community partners as early in fall term as possible,” Wagner said. “We’re also going to employ a project management framework in both the fall and J-term courses so that the students can grow their project management skills.”

The feedback she received from students in both courses this year has been gratifying, Wagner said. “It was eye-opening and invaluable for them to be able to work on a real project with real people in the community who had a demonstrated need they were able to help fill. They felt like they were making a difference.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Hollins University website.

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