Campus Life

What's the big idea?: Community members meet to tackle sustainability questions

More than 1,700 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in 2018-19 for the weekly Sustainability Showcase Series

Penn State students Maddy Mitchell, Tiana Williams, Whitney Ashead and Brittany Mumma, left to right, presented a student panel discussing food system issues at the final Sustainability Showcase of the spring 2019 semester. This year's Sustainability Showcases featured unprecedented student involvement. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — So, what was the big idea? Penn State’s Council of Sustainable Leaders, with support from the Sustainability Institute, hosted 22 events this past year in its weekly Sustainability Showcase Series, asking speakers to consider the question: “What is your ‘Big Idea’ that will advance sustainability in the 21st century?” 

The various speakers offered solutions from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives, promoting ideas like building social trust among college students and their neighbors; suing over Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to a clean environment; and including more artists in sustainability conversations to ask different questions about social issues. All of the speakers challenged participants to think more broadly about sustainability and gave students an opportunity to engage with world-class thinkers.

“The Sustainability Showcases are events designed by students for students,” said Paul Shrivastava, Penn State’s chief sustainability officer and the director of the Sustainability Institute. “Throughout the semester, they engage leaders and the Penn State community with provocative presentations, fresh new ideas, and open discussions on critical aspects of sustainable development."

The showcases, hosted on Fridays in the HUB-Robeson Center and frequently livestreamed for viewing at all the campuses, make connections between faculty research, students’ personal and professional interests, and the global U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, drawing people together from across  campus. The 22 speakers featured this last year represented nine of Penn State’s academic colleges and drew an average of 79 people at each talk. On average, attendance was comprised of 54 percent students, 35 percent faculty/staff, and 11 percent community members. 

Among this year’s speakers were Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for Student Affairs; Bob Inglis, a former Republican U.S. congressman and a climate change activist; Maya van Rossum, Delaware Riverkeeper and author; Stephen Gabauer, a Penn State alumnus and founder of Underdogs United; and Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science and geosciences. 

Maddy Mitchell, the director of the Sustainability Showcase Series, is a Penn State sophomore studying recreation, park, and tourism management in the College of Health and Human Development. She attended the Sustainability Showcase Series the first semester of her freshman year of college and credits these weekly events with how she became so passionate about sustainability at Penn State.

“The Sustainability Showcase Series has seen a lot of growth within the past year,” Mitchell said. “Among our achievements, we were able to gather speakers from more diverse backgrounds, make connections across the University and the country, market the event so that we hit maximum capacity each week, and integrate student speakers into the conversation.” 

The final event of the semester on April 19 offered the showcases’ first-ever student panel, themed around food systems at Penn State. Featured student speakers Brittany Mumma, Tiana Williams and Whitney Ashead represented the Student Farm, Lion’s Pantry and Residential Dining. 

“I’ve been attending showcases for two years now,” said Ashead. “There is a community forming around the ideas and Sustainable Development Goals that the showcase highlights. The opportunity to be a speaker in the final showcase brought the experience full circle for me with the chance to showcase how student efforts can make a significant impact toward the Sustainable Development Goals right here in our own community and beyond.” 

The Sustainability Showcase Series will return in the fall and Mitchell anticipates even more growth with the series next year. Follow the Council of Sustainable Leaders Facebook page to learn more about upcoming events for 2019-20. 

From left to right, Michael Mann, Penn State professor of atmospheric science and geosciences; Bob Inglis, former Republican congressman and climate change activist; Richard Alley, Penn State professor of geosciences; and Paul Shrivastava, Penn State's chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute, gather for Inglis’ Sustainability Showcase on Feb. 22, 2019. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 20, 2019