Research Summary

Campus sustainability and natural area stewardship: student involvement in adaptive comanagement

Strategies for Integrating Students in Campus Sustainability Projects

Ecology and Society
2014

Local issues of sustainability have become part of the dialogue at university campuses. To that end, over the past decade, campus sustainability initiatives have proliferated throughout the United States. These initiatives have mostly focused on recycling programs, energy usage, and carbon footprints. A concurrent trend is the broadening of these initiatives to include campus land management, comprised of plant and soil stewardship as well as the restoration and protection of vulnerable areas. Examples of campus land management projects and corresponding research suggest the importance of student–administration collaboration, but none have outlined a framework to create or replicate successful collaborations.

Using a land management and safety intervention at Cornell University, this paper’s authors qualitatively studied the process and potential for students to collaborate, act, and learn from on-campus land stewardship. They used a conceptual framework called adaptive co-management (ACM), which encompasses social learning, shared action, and social capital or networking. When applied to management, ACM is accomplished through learning-by-doing, flexibility, interdisciplinary and evolving solutions, and power-sharing on multiple levels. It is often used in complex, interconnected, and uncertain or changing issues, such as those that might be encountered with land management. This framework provided structure for interviews with students and was also used to measure the extent of student involvement.

The issue at stake in this study involved two creeks that flank Cornell University. The northern Fall Creek, its associated gorge, and trails comprise 26.5 acres of natural space. Students travel to class by crossing one of the many bridges suspended over the creek and are able to enjoy the scenic views and natural habitat, as well as the drinking water and hydroelectric power the creek provides the university. Friends of the Gorge (FOG), a student organization, was founded in 2008 after a series of drowning incidents. The goal of FOG is to balance gorge safety, recreation, and stewardship. Issues surrounding the gorge were compounded in 2010 with six suicides that occurred off the gorge bridges. These tragedies prompted the university to build tall chain-link fences along all campus and nearby city bridges. In an effort to find permanent solutions, university administrators invited FOG students to participate in discussions. The authors studied this discussion process to decipher evidence of ACM, as well as its usefulness in campus sustainability initiatives.

The researchers invited 10 undergraduate students who had been the most active in FOG weekly meetings to participate in 30- to 60-minute semi-structured interviews. The interviews were conducted in fall 2011, which was less than a year after the six suicides and after the fences had been constructed. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded using predetermined codes generated from relevant literature. Unexpected and contradictory codes were also used to assess the validity of the study. The findings revealed five interrelated themes that all pointed to the use of ACM: engagement in the policymaking process, shared action, involvement and civic leadership, diversity of friendship, and systems orientation. Following, each of these themes is discussed.

After the suicides, students expressed mistrust toward university administrators and also strong emotional responses regarding the unsightly chain-link fences. Engaging in the long-term policymaking process allowed students to learn of alternative perspectives, ask questions, contribute their opinions, and reformulate their own position based on their learning. One student reflected, “As we’ve had discussions among ourselves and with university officials, as we’ve sat in on talks, all of our viewpoints have matured.”

This social learning experience also generated motivation for shared action. FOG members compiled all viewpoints and wrote a position paper about balancing gorge safety and access to these natural areas. This shared action was also expressed through the involvement and civic leadership students demonstrated as they involved other student organizations, participated in trail maintenance, and made and installed safety signs along the trails.

The learning experiences and collaborative participation forged diverse friendships between students across academic majors and social scenes. During the interviews, students discussed their collaborative work with fraternities to organize trash pick-up events in the gorge and how these events brought a diverse array of students together while creating environmental learning experiences for those not involved in environmental-based organizations.

Finally, students spoke of their new understandings of integrated human-natural systems, how humans are part of nature, and how thoughtful stewardship is both healthy for humans and the environment alike.

Finding successful solutions to the bridge safety, gorge accessibility, and natural aesthetic issues demonstrated how students engaged in social learning, social action, and social networking. These findings suggest that ACM framework could be useful in understanding, designing, and evaluating campus sustainability efforts.

The Bottom Line

Increasingly, students are becoming involved in campus sustainability projects, such as plant and soil stewardship, restoration projects, and land management. Their involvement provides opportunities for collaborative learning, networking, and the development of critical skills for being engaged citizens. Adaptive co-management (ACM) is a framework that provides helpful tools for students and administration considering collaboration on campus projects. It highlights the importance of social, or collaborative, learning and actions, and creating opportunities for social networking. ACM also highlights the importance of developing interdisciplinary and evolving solutions as well as allowing students to share in the responsibility, as well as the power, to enact change.