Emory Report
May 5, 2008
Volume 60, Number 30


Emory Report homepage  

May 5, 2008
Nurturing a greener Atlanta

BY Carol clark

Social compatibility can be key when it comes to carpooling.

“I had never thought about that before,” says John William Roberson III, a junior, who uncovered the insight in a course titled “Service Learning in Environmental Studies.”

Undergraduates in the course are taking an active role in Mayor Shirley Franklin’s Sustainable Atlanta Initiative, helping the city refine its Commute Alternatives Program and other key strategies.

Roberson, an environmental studies major, worked with a team of student consultants who interviewed city employees about their commutes. Some employees said that they felt uncomfortable riding to work with people outside their social spheres. “For example, I like to listen to music and talk on the phone while I drive,” Roberson says. “I know that older people sometimes drive a little slower and they don’t like their music too loud, or even the choice of music of someone younger.”

Interviewing 117 employees one-on-one was labor intensive, but provided richer data than an e-mail survey, says Ijeoma Ohiaeri, a senior majoring in environmental studies. “The employees told me hilarious stories of carpools gone wrong,” she says. “It gave me a different perspective on what’s important when it comes to alternative transportation.”

The students analyzed the survey data and recently presented the results, along with their recommendations, to the city’s human resources managers. Among their findings: 78 percent of the 117 employees interviewed said that they drive alone to work. Nearly 32 percent said they were interested in other options, due to concerns about climate change and Atlanta’s environment.

Michael Page, Emory electronic data librarian, helped the students create a map showing the proximate location of all the residences of the nearly 9,000 city employees, revealing that 70 percent of them live outside the perimeter.

“The city officials loved the presentation. They asked great questions and had a lot of comments,” Ohiaeri says. “I felt like I’d really achieved something.”

“The data the students produced is not going to sit on a shelf. It’s helping us calculate the city’s greenhouse gas footprint and clarify where to target our programs,” says Mandy Schmitt, Atlanta’s new director of sustainability. Schmitt took the same service-learning course in 2001, when she was an Emory environmental studies major. She went on to graduate from Emory’s law school before joining the city in February.

Ellen Spears, an instructor in environmental studies, taught the course this spring. While one student team worked on commute alternatives, a second taught basic botany and sustainability to third-graders at the Drew Charter School, and helped the children plant native trees in the East Lake Community Park.

“This course bridges the academic and policy realms. It gives students an opportunity to have a professional experience — to act as a consultant to a client and provide a tangible benefit through the skills they’ve learned,” Spears says. She brings decades of scholarship in environmental policy and civil rights to her teaching, and received her doctorate in environmental history from Emory’s Institute of Liberal Arts in 2006.

“This will be a transformational experience for the students, just as the class was for me,” Schmitt predicts. “What you learn by being a consultant for a client is very different from what you learn by doing a paper, or even a field class.”

After she graduates next fall, Ohiaeri plans to return to her native Nigeria, where efforts to get the oil industry to reduce harmful gas flares have been ineffective. “There’s a world of opportunity to make a difference in Nigeria,” she says. “I learned in this course that you don’t necessarily have to be combative. You can see some change happen by working together with people.”