Sustainability class sparked major interest for education/public policy student

Education and public policy student Claire Talley said one course on sustainability during her freshman year was revolutionary because she had no idea she'd be "going green." Credit: Courtesy Claire TalleyAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — One sustainability class taken two years ago just might lead to a sustainable career for education and public policy major Claire Talley.

A junior from Austin, Texas, Talley took a course on sustainability in education in spring 2017 with Peter Buckland, academic programs manager for Penn State's Sustainability Institute, and her interest in the subject escalated from there.

"I went into it not knowing what the concept of sustainability was, but I liked eco-friendly things and I thought it might be interesting to see how that translates into a classroom and what connections there are with education," Talley said.

She said the course was centered on a remodeling project that Corl Street Elementary School in State College Area School District was undergoing at the time.

"The goal of the course was to provide recommendations to the State College School Board to connect the physical features of the new building with the curriculum in order to meet a certain credit under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification," Talley said.

Recommendations were made and some were followed — such as the installation of solar panels — but when the course ended, Talley's interest in the subject material didn't.

"I decided I wanted to keep learning about it. I applied for and accepted an internship position working under Peter (Buckland) at the Sustainability Institute," she said. "The Sustainability Institute works with the Penn State community, different colleges and students and faculty, to make sure the campus is a sustainable campus."

The sustainability topics soon became a passion for Talley.

"I'm an education policy major so I love learning about the school system and the classroom and working with teachers and faculty and school administrators. It's so interesting how many intersections there are," she said. "What you teach a student in the classroom is how they grow up to be as a person and how they impact society. In this time, it's really important for us to face the ecological crises that are imminent, and one way to ensure a more sustainable society is to teach students how to do that in formal education."

Her dedication to ongoing sustainability left an impression on Buckland.

"Claire is a remarkable young woman. She has developed a whole set of skills that we want in an education and public policy student as well as knowledge about topics that make her stand out," Buckland said. 

Going green was OK with Talley, although it was a bit surprising.

"That's why the course was kind of revolutionary almost because I had no idea," she said. "I'm from Austin, Texas, so coming here to Penn State was a huge transition.

"Penn State is an incredibly big school and there's so much to do and so much to learn about that I just didn't know anything. I took this course and I was like, 'That's interesting, that's cool, I want to learn more,' and so I kind of continued on it. I had never even heard of sustainability education or environmental education before this."

Talley has mastered the skills that classes teach well, according to Buckland.

"She researches thoroughly and communicates clearly and succinctly. She asks policy-relevant questions," he said. 

"But as she has worked on the social part of this project, she has learned how to plan, to coordinate with professionals, to figure out her role and build trust, and how to learn about new things, especially green building, renewable energy, and infrastructure. Now, she can put all those things together to show a compelling case for why and how a green building is more than just a building. It's the context for deep learning."

Talley presented a short speech and poster at the Campus and Community Sustainability Expo at the State College Borough Building last fall and said it was interesting to see the variety on display, such as water quality issues and sustainable business management practices. She can also see her future in that type of curriculum.

"I want to advocate for it and promote and communicate sustainability and educating for sustainability in all spaces of school," Talley said. "I want to be involved in research somehow and keep learning and growing and expanding the field, whether that takes me to a university professor or doing nonprofit work or doing administrative work on a state level — curriculum development or professional development for teachers. Both of those areas are pretty high interest to me. There are a lot of options, I've learned."

She also learned, she said, that one of the best things you can do is educate.

"Everyone can bond over their education. Everybody goes through elementary school, middle school, high school; it's a common ground and that's why it's so ingrained into our system and it's so personal to each person," Talley said. 

"Everyone has a favorite teacher they can tell you right off the bat who and what grade it was, what their name was, why they loved it so much. It's just a very personal thing but it's also a common experience. 

"But I think that I love it so much because it's people — those relationships between the teacher and the student, between teachers and other teachers, it's very social and learning is an amazing thing. Everybody wants to keep learning about something they're interested in.

"It just offers so much opportunity for the world and you can really shape a society and a community through your local school. It's a community hub; so much socializing happens at a school and it impacts families and it impacts children. I love the community aspect to it because you can shape it and make it a better place."

Which is something Buckland likes to hear.

"The engaged experience through that first class made all the difference and it has changed Claire's life," he said. "As her former teacher and current boss, this is music to my ears. I'm so proud of her."

Last Updated January 23, 2019