Student Perspective: Lessons Learned from SLS Buzz Courses

August 16, 2021

My name is Yassin, and I was an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech from 2015 to 2021. I first heard about the Serve Learn Sustain initiative while taking a database systems course. During one of our classes while discussing the vast realm of work opportunities in computer science, our professor encouraged us to use the skills we were learning towards fostering sustainable communities. She said that if we had an interest in such applications, we could find many opportunities through SLS. Although I was not entirely set on my career at the time, I’ve always been passionate about reducing my impact on the natural environment and had no hesitation signing up for the mailing list. Just a few weeks later, I saw an advertisement promoting an SLS Buzz Course on Universal Design for Sustainable Communities, so I jumped at the chance to learn more about the field! I would soon begin to learn that sustainability encompasses so many more aspects of life beyond natural resources.

The course began with an orientation led by SLS Director Dr. Jennifer Hirsch and Industrial Design Professor Jon Sanford to introduce us to the project, and in particular, the principle of universal design: the design of buildings, products, or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. As someone who did not identify as having a disability, I quickly realized how challenging it could be for so many people to simply maneuver through the world and that reframing our viewpoint is a crucial exercise to continually practice. For example, having sloped entrances to buildings invites all to enter, as opposed to forcing those who cannot use stairs to seek other means that are sometimes not available at all despite ADA laws. In addition, the ways we construct water fountains, passageways, and even websites are commonly inaccessible to large portions of the population. It became clear that we can do a much better job at designing spaces with everyone in mind- instead of catering to one group while “accommodating” others. And if we can do better, I believe we have a duty to do better. 

The next phase of the course consisted of our interdisciplinary group of students splitting up into smaller teams to work individually with one of a handful of local farmers markets. The team I was a part of worked with The Green Market at Piedmont Park, a weekly pop-up bazaar with vendors from across the state of Georgia that serve a mostly elderly customer base in the midtown Atlanta area. After visiting the site to collect observations over the subsequent weeks, we reconvened with one of the head organizers to provide suggestions about the location of curb cuts, the height of food stalls, and the design scheme of signage in order to make the experience more accessible and enjoyable for all. It was enlightening to exchange unique perspectives with students studying psychology, public policy, and many other majors while reporting to someone with an entrepreneurial background. As the saying goes, team work makes the dream work!

After dipping my toes into these new waters, I immediately signed up for the next SLS Buzz Course on Social Innovation for Sustainable Communities. During this orientation, I joined a new cohort of similarly interdisciplinary students and community leaders for a social enterprise boot camp at the Atlanta Center for Civic Innovation hosted by their Executive Director Rohit Malhotra. While engaging in lively and interactive discussion about ways to impact social good, one of the biggest takeaways I left with was that just because an organization is not a non-profit does not preclude its capacity for positive change; in fact, efficient planning of an effective business model can lead to work that is oftentimes more financially supportive of its employees and their clientele, leading to greater outcomes in long-term sustainability. 

In similar fashion to the previous Buzz Course, our next steps included splitting up into smaller teams to work with one of a group of local initiatives focused on funding educational opportunities in low-income neighborhoods, building community gardens, and the focus of my own team’s project, public health research and education. We collaborated with the Emory University Hercules Exposome Research Center, an institution that seeks to capture the totality of environmental exposures across one's lifetime in order to better understand the environment's overall contribution to health and disease. Weeks of “research, discourse, and repeat” culminated in a series of suggestions reported to our point of contact, Community Engagement Manager Erin Lebow-Skelley, on increasing the two-way transfer of knowledge between public health professionals and the people they aim to serve. This project piqued my personal interest in the intersection between well-being and sustainability since the education I received in the course highlighted the fact that our health is greatly affected by everything from the physical commutes we navigate to the social circles we maintain to the cultural backgrounds that shape our identities. 

After taking both of these SLS Buzz Courses, I learned three critically important lessons about building sustainable communities. The first is that interdisciplinary teams are necessary for robust solutions. Even though specialization in a specific area can provide great depth of understanding to one portion of a project, a more encompassing lens is formed when a breadth of viewpoints are included. One of my favorite examples of this is displayed in the design of MRI machines. Leading scientists, engineers, and physicians worked together in the development of the technology, but they encountered a problem that seemed insurmountable to them after many unsuccessful attempts at addressing it on their own. The problem was that children were scared of the giant buzzing machines! After repeatedly going back to the drawing board to try to redesign them to be less intimidating, the STEM-centered group were fruitless in their efforts since most kids still cried, kicked, and screamed throughout the procedure, negating the effectiveness of the medical imaging technique. It was only when Doug Dietz, an MRI engineer for GE Healthcare, reached out to a local children’s museum that the new group had a lightbulb moment. They opted to paint the machine to resemble a pirate ship, ensuring the decor throughout the entire room fit along with the theme. Radiology technicians were then trained to use a script that, instead of instructing patients to stay still and quiet, allowed kids to feel like they were embarking on an adventure through time and space where they got to be the captain of the ship! The results were astounding: children who used to be mortified at the idea of hospitals began to display excitement about the fun ahead. The subsequent pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh were able to get a much higher quality of care, and it would not have been possible without the help of artists. Since then, hospitals across the nation have been encouraged to follow their lead to give children in need the help that they deserve. 

The second lesson that I learned from both SLS programs is that when working with a community, it is best to listen to your constituents and help them lead as opposed to thinking that you are the experts. My team and I experienced this first hand when I served as the project manager for my senior design capstone project with medical device manufacturer LW Scientific. Our team of industrial engineering and computer science students were pouring over class notebooks and python programs for weeks on end in attempts to design what seemed like the most mathematically efficient layout of our client’s manufacturing line and warehouse. When trialing our initial proposed solutions, we repeatedly encountered roadblocks that ended up making overall throughput of products worse than what was present before we got there! It was only when we took the time to sit down with each individual worker on the assembly line and warehouse floor that we learned of the intricate heuristics that the teams had naturally developed over their years of working- which involved accounting for variables that would have otherwise flown under our radar. Real world systems are almost always more complicated than what we learn in our studies, so it is best to gain perspective from people who have long been involved in them and use their wealth of information as a starting point rather than trying to fit an idealized conception to it. By the end of the project term, we were able to trial and eventually implement a much more comprehensive plan that set our client up to be one of the first companies in Georgia to begin producing face shields and other personal protective equipment in response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

The third lesson I learned from these Buzz Courses is that many light hearts make for light work. Students, business leaders, activists, and academic advisors from all walks of life and a wide variety of ages all joined forces in our various projects. And everyone, regardless of their background, faces stressors in their life that can come from personal troubles, daily hassles, and, of course, obstacles in their line of work. But in spite of these predicaments, we all congregated as human beings seeking to have altruistic effects on our community. This collective positivity in attitude manifested through constant jokes, hilarious anecdotes, and heart-to-heart moments of relatable life experiences- many of which had nothing at all to do with the job at hand. It was the connection that we made over shared interests in music, tv shows, and food that gave us a true team mindset, which had unquantifiably beneficial effects on our work. Between lunch breaks and snacks (generously offered to hungry college kids, free-of-charge, by SLS during these Buzz Courses), food quickly became something that I saw as another focal point to bring folks together for sustainable development, leading me to set my sights on how I could pivot my extracurricular involvements into that space. 

While trying my hand at consulting through GT Students Consulting for Non-Profit Organizations (SCNO), I served as the team lead for our project with the Peachtree City-based Georgia Division of Midwest Food Bank. We consulted this organization which aims to alleviate hunger and poverty by gathering and distributing food donations to nonprofits and disaster sites without cost to the recipients. Naturally, we assessed our client’s warehouse inventory storage system in addition to distribution processes in order to identify areas for improvement in their systems. We then designed and incorporated changes to those processes that resulted in a significant increase in throughput of food donations over the following year. Midwest Food Bank, which has rapidly-expanding branches across the United States, went on to be one of the largest donors to indigenous tribes across America in food shortages that followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moreover, it was through SCNO that I met a co-worker that became a friend of mine who, like myself, follows a plant-based lifestyle. She invited me to an upcoming Veggie Jackets meeting where I immediately connected with countless other vegan foodies over our love of eats, animals, and the environment. Over the years that followed, I became heavily involved in the executive board to facilitate potlucks, food outings, and guest speaker events to help spread information about how anyone can play a large and active role in reducing their environmental impact via the consumer choices that they make. One of my favorite programs from Veggie Jackets included a collaborative event with the Feminist Club to examine the intersection of our organizations’ focuses. Since we should not be simply boxed into categories based on one portion of our identity, a person’s gender, race, nationality, and socioeconomic status can all inform our accessibility to and education on the far-reaching impacts of our dietary choices. I was honored to lead the workshop focusing on nationality, as an increasingly popular plant protein source, tempeh, is native to my motherland of Indonesia! 

My passion for the culinary arts, sustainability, and equity further led me to join the Student Sustainability Advisory Council (SSAC) led by Sustainability Project Managers Sarah Neville and Malte Weiland. In this highly interdisciplinary think tank, student organization leaders worked together with faculty in the Office of Campus Sustainability to identify opportunities across campus to lobby for more plant-based food options in dining halls, more extensive protocols for donation and re-use of furniture during move-outs at the end of each semester, and one of the biggest projects that I’ve played a very small part in, Georgia Tech’s truly one-of-a-kind Kendeda Building. As SSAC members, we were able to tour the facility a few weeks before its opening, host our meetings in its beautifully crafted community spaces, and witness the mesmerizing foam flush in its state-of-the-art restrooms! Not long after its grand opening, I was lucky enough to take an ecology laboratory course in Kendeda under Dr. Emily Weigel, where we taxonomized the building’s surrounding flora and fauna, embarked on field trips to local Atlanta rivers to monitor their ecosystem health, and even indexed phenological phenomena of woody plants across campus for Morton Arboretum, an international database for arboreta, as per our school’s classification as a Level II arboretum. Fast forwarding to Earth Day in 2021, Kendeda was recognized as the greenest building on any college campus in America. Overall, it creates more than double the energy than it uses, classifying it as 1 of just 28 certified Living Buildings in the entire world, which presently stands as the most environmentally-friendly building achievement on the planet. 

Georgia Tech and our beloved Serve Learn Sustain initiative are undoubtedly at the forefront of sustainable community development at all scales. The opportunities I was exposed to and the dear friends and partners I met and collaborated with have benefited our community far beyond what could be explained in an essay. But the overwhelming success of SLS in its few years of operation since 2016 should be ample proof that Yellow Jackets are dutifully committed to our motto of Progress and Service.