While completing her undergraduate studies in Earth and Environmental Sciences at McMaster University, Melissa Gallina developed a passionate and dedicated interest in the human aspect of environmental issues. Always a scientist at heart, her interest in sustainability perfectly meshed science with its relevance to society. What emerged from this simple, yet powerful synergy was an idea. Thanks to Melissa's tireless work and dedication to launch the Graduate-Undergraduate Collaborative Environmental Learning (GUCEL) program, this idea has since blossomed into a wide array of initiatives that actively enrich the educational experience for students at all levels of study at McMaster.
Manny: The GUCEL Program, which you launched in May 2013, has already made some great strides at McMaster in its short history. Can you tell us more about the program and some of your initiatives?
Melissa: GUCEL enables graduate students to engage in interdisciplinary, self-directed, community-based, and experiential learning related to sustainability. GUCEL team members have the opportunity to work in a group setting with other students from various faculties at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. We have developed the GUCEL program to cater to the wide array of projects and disciplines that sustainability encompasses. The program is truly self-directed, where students are able to define their own learning and direct their own project to align with their personal passions and interests. Students receive support and mentorship along the way.
Upon successful completion, undergraduate students receive course credit from their home faculty and graduate students receive a letter of reference and recognition from the Dean of Graduate Studies.
So far, all of the GUCEL projects have grown and developed organically from a single idea. For example, Engage With Waste arose from the idea to engage McMaster staff in waste diversion efforts within one building on campus. As this idea developed, other students who were interested in the topic became engaged and chose to take part by contributing to enhance waste diversion in various ways. One group focused on improving the infrastructure to support collection of electronic waste, as well as implemented a promotional campaign, which included a campus-wide event and Amazing Race themed challenge aimed to educate and encourage members of the campus community to take part in proper recycling of electronic waste.
Manny: Can you tell us a little bit about how the program came about? What were your personal motivators for starting the program?
Melissa: I would say that my motivation for starting the GUCEL program stems from my undergraduate years here at McMaster, where I developed a passion for sustainability. In my fourth year, I completed a sustainability internship, a for-credit project where I focused on reducing paper use on campus, specifically in the libraries. Working with the library staff and through interviews with students, I discovered that a key barrier to reducing paper use was the tendency of some professors to enforce strict guidelines for submitting assignments. These guidelines often require the use of double spacing and single-sided sheets.. Through incredible support and feedback from the faculties, we were able to help them in their efforts to reduce paper through the creation of sustainable submission guidelines. Professors can now choose from the bronze, silver, gold, or platinum level by including the already prepared guidelines into their course syllabus. One academic area in particular made a program-wide goal to work together to achieve the gold standard. The outcomes achieved through this initiative and the incredible collaboration with the students, staff and faculty, has led to tangible and measurable outcomes towards improved sustainability.
When I started my Masters degree in Geography, I was very interested in continuing this type of experiential learning in sustainability. I realized there was a significant gap in experiential education in the field of sustainability. With the guidance of Kate Whalen from the Office of Sustainability, I applied for a SPICES (Student Proposals for Intellectual Community and Engaged Scholarship) Grant from the School of Graduate Studies, which funds student-led projects that seek to enrich the graduate experience. Through this grant, I was fortunate to receive initial funding for what is now the GUCEL Program.
Manny: Your program has helped to bridge some significant barriers to cross-disciplinary collaboration on campus. What do you think is the biggest barrier to promoting these types of relationships?
Melissa: Due to the University’s academic structure, which is divided by faculties and programs, it is common for students to continue to develop their communities with others from similar academic disciplines. I believe that the sustainability courses at McMaster, which are under the Sustainable Future Program, are very unique because students from each faculty and all academic backgrounds are able to work together, bringing their unique perspectives to discuss issues, and work to implement real-world solutions to sustainability problems. The GUCEL program follows this model and promotes a truly interdisciplinary approach to working through these issues.. To date, the GUCEL teams have included graduate and undergraduate students from Science, Engineering, Arts & Science, and Economics.
Sustainability is inherently an interdisciplinary challenge, which requires interdisciplinary solutions. Recent changes at the university are encouraging, since an undergraduate minor degree option has been approved for students in all programs. Along with the continual expansion of Sustainable Future Program, I believe that positive outcomes will be seen through this larger focus on promoting interdisciplinary learning about sustainability.
Manny: GUCEL’s second major project, Green Jobs, has recently begun. Can you tell us about what it entails and your major goals for this project?
Melissa: The Green Jobs project was started by a graduate student with a background in economic policy. The major goal of the project is to analyze the sustainability job market in the Hamilton area, and to help students who have an interest in sustainability to better connect and engage with potential employers. This GUCEL team consists of three students, who are each looking at different aspects of the broader project. For instance, one group member will be interviewing students to gain a better understanding of their desire to obtain a sustainability-related job after graduation and determining their level of preparedness with respect to practical skills for their future employment. Another member will be mirroring the student survey to obtain feedback from potential employers with the goal to better understand what skills, abilities, and experiences they are looking for. The third group member will be studying the role of interdisciplinary learning on career preparedness, specifically for careers in sustainability. Ultimately, the group aims to identify discrepancies between what the students want, what they can offer, and what employers are looking for. The group is excited about working with McMaster’s Student Success Centre, and members of the broader community to deliver an informational workshop and networking event to share their findings as well as to support students in preparing for and landing a career in sustainability.
Manny: Well, thank you very much Melissa for sharing your important work with us; it is clear that the GUCEL Program has created a strong foundation for the future of sustainable practices at the university and the greater Hamilton community.
To learn more and to get involved in the GUCEL program, click here.