Students at Rensselaer are part of the diverse campus community of artists, engineers, scientists, athletes, entrepreneurs, community service volunteers, and sustainability advocates.
Noting growing student interest in sustainability, climate change, and other environmental factors, Rensselaer established Vasudha, a living-learning community focused on “Earth, Energy, and Environment.” Launched three years ago by the Office of Undergraduate Education, Vasudha is a place that first-year students with a passion for learning about and solving problems related to the environment can call home. This year’s group of 37 first-year students is based in Nason Hall, where they enjoy a dedicated lounge and classroom.
“In Sanskrit, an Indian language, the word Vasudha means ‘earth and its elements,’” said Prabhat Hajela, vice provost and dean of the office of undergraduate education. “Living-learning programs give students with different backgrounds, but with a shared passion in a particular field, the opportunity to study and live in close proximity within a residence hall, facilitating studying, networking, and close friendships. Most importantly, seeing and interacting with faculty within residential areas helps enhance the overall student experience.”
At Rensselaer, the goals of establishing a living-learning community are simple but meaningful: to create educational environments and opportunities in the residence halls and to develop mentoring and personal connections between faculty, staff, administrators, and students outside the classroom.
Since its inception, 93 students have participated in Vasudha. The program, designed for all majors, specifically encourages a multidisciplinary environment, where mechanical engineers, biologists, humanists, and others can all work together. The students who elect to participate in this program are enrolled in a common course (IHSS-1970 Nature/Society) during the fall semester. In addition to being a core seminar, the course is a First-Year Studies seminar designed to focus on students’ transition from high school to college. Various academic transition topics and exercises are integrated into the course.
The course also focuses on the social, biological, and ecological aspects of humans in the natural world. Atsushi Akera, assistant professor in the department of science and technology studies and acting director for the first-year studies, and John Gowdy, professor of economics and Rittenhouse Teaching Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, serve as the core teaching faculty.
“The signature themes of the program are a focus on independent thought, critical thinking, and an early introduction to undergraduate research experience,” Akera said. “Students also learn about how individuals have used the land in the past, what we do today, and what our prospects are as a species for the 21st century.”
Contemporary issues such as land use, energy use, climate change, and biodiversity loss are explored through literature, films, and guest lectures. The course is also organized around a series of field trips to upstate landmarks that include: the historic Erie Canal, the Rensselaer Plateau, and elsewhere including “virtual” trips to distant places that will allow students to study human habitation in different ecological settings.
“Students are coming to Rensselaer already interested in issues associated with the environment,” said Gowdy, a faculty member since 1989. “In the past few years, I see that today’s students as a whole are much more engaged in sustainability and concerned about the environment. They want to make the world a better place and there is a greater sense of responsibility and deeper understanding of what needs to be done.”
Vasudha is supported by a project team comprised of faculty, staff, and a graduate student who serves as the teaching and learning assistant. Specific groups involved include: Undergraduate Education, Residence Life, the Advising and Learning Assistance Center, the Office of the First-Year Experience, Enrollment Management, Campus Planning and Facilities Design, the School of Architecture, the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, and numerous academic departments, among others.
Several other themed living options are part of the Residence Life community at Rensselaer, including: Ground Zero, a community for arts, music, and culture; Leadership House, which provides student leader development for first-year students; and Wellness House, a community for first-year students with an opportunity to learn and practice a holistic approach to making their minds and bodies healthier.
Hajela noted that Vasudha will also tie into Rensselaer’s CLASS initiative. “Clustered Learning, Advocacy and Support for Students” aims to transform the student experience by elevating the quality of support for students throughout the undergraduate years. The new student life model is Rensselaer’s effort to create a unique residential undergraduate college within a world-class technological research university.”
To learn more about Vasudha visit: http://green.rpi.edu/archives/vasudha/index.html.
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