|EDINBURG, May 5 - For the new university created by the merger of the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas-Brownsville to succeed, it will require a solid foundation, a vision of its own.
I propose that sustainability be made a fundamental part of that vision.
Sustainability means satisfying human needs while balancing the needs of society, the economy and the environment, and ensuring that future generations can do so as well.
The Prius is the perfect example of sustainability in action. It's an affordable car, it’s made in America by American workers, and at the same time it protects its owner’s finances by consuming less fuel per mile than most other cars on the market and emitting less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. It's a product that helps the country's citizens, economy and environment all at the same time.
Products like this have the ability to change whole communities and even the world, but we will need more than a couple of people driving hybrid cars to get the Rio Grande Valley to become the economic force it can be, and the example of environmental consciousness that it should be.
What the Valley needs is professionals with the ability to develop sustainable projects and products like the Prius here in our community.
Our current academic system here at UTPA generates great professionals, but because of the lack of employment in the RGV many of our most brilliant students can only find jobs in larger cities such as San Antonio or Austin.
“We graduate about 400 engineers each year, and there are only two hundred engineering jobs in the region. This means more than two hundred students either will be unemployed or will leave to work somewhere else,” UTPA’s president Dr. Robert Nelsen said.
What the Valley community needs, and what the UTPA administration is pursuing, is to give students the skills to generate jobs here in the region rather than having to leave. And we can help stop the brain drain by making sustainability the focus of the new university’s research activities and curriculum.
This means launching what other institutions call: "The Integrated Sustainability Curriculum," that is, an interdisciplinary curriculum that introduces environmental consciousness into each course and encourages the learning of fundamental principles of sustainability through real-world examples.
Dr. Linda De la Garza from Valdosta State University is already teaching within the context of this curriculum.
Instead of lecturing students in her chemistry class using slides, Dr. De la Garza introduces real-world situations like the overheating of a chemical reactor in a certain industry or acid rain occurring in a specific city. Students investigate the history, science, and sociological implications of their subject and apply their acquired knowledge to make an analysis of the situation and develop a proposal to mitigate negative impacts on humans, the economy, and the environment. In this way students develop interdisciplinary research and analytic skills that would not be attainable in a regular chemistry lecture course.
We can use an approach similar to Dr. De la Garza’s by exposing students to the region's current socioeconomic and environmental challenges, such as the effects of poverty, economic instability for both small and large businesses, and environmental awareness about issues like plastic bag pollution and the deterioration of South Padre Island. These issues should not only be addressed through the Office of Sustainability at UTPA and other organizations, but inside the classrooms, giving the classes meaning beyond mastering skills and memorizing concepts.
According to Dr. Robert Nelsen, "the administration completely supports changes for sustainability, but for such a change in the curriculum to occur, first students must demand it, and faculty must be willing to provide it.”
This semester I experienced being part of one of the first environmental studies core courses UTPA has offered. The rhetoric and composition course required us to research and write about the environmental challenges our communities are facing. At the end of the semester, my classmates and I reflected and agreed on one thing: everyone should take this course.
I believe that students would demand a sustainability-based curriculum if they were exposed to this reality.
The university has made steps towards transforming the Rio Grande Valley into a more sustainable region. With community engagement, service learning, the new teacher certification program (UTeach), environmental education, and an increasing emphasis on coastal and energy research, the new university is uniquely situated to develop a new model of education for the Rio Grande Valley.
With this sustainable model of education, the new university will have the potential to create professionals with the capacity to transform the environmental, social, and economic landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.
Francisco Torres, from Tampico, Tamaulipas is a Manufacturing Engineering major and is pursuing high school science teacher certification through the UTeach Program at the University of Texas-Pan American.
The above guest column is part of a series on environmental issues the Rio Grande Guardian is running in association with UTPA.