Layered learning: Students solve local challenges in community-scale composting class

August 3, 2012

After six hours of shoveling compost in 100-degree weather, Natalie Cook, Hui Wang and Jen Weisheit were deemed the compost queens.

The UW-Madison students and five classmates were part of Community-Scale Composting, a summer capstone course for students earning the undergraduate environmental studies certificate or major. The class centers on real-world sustainability and community challenges, encouraging problem-solving, teamwork and the mastering of other important life skills.

UW-Madison students in composting class
Students sort compostable waste at a city of Madison
waste transfer station. Photo courtesy Nina Chaopricha.

“Service-learning capstone courses are generally integrative, combining multiple fields of knowledge and using multiple ways of learning,” explains Steve Ventura, a UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and soil science who helped to direct the class. “Students are able to apply what they've spent four years learning and realize that their talents and knowledge have value.”

The course was developed by Nelson Institute graduate student Nina Chaopricha in the spring of 2012 while she was earning a doctorate in Environment and Resources. Now graduated, her goal was to give students practical, hands-on experiences they could draw from after graduation. Allison Dungan, a master’s candidate in agroecology, led the summer course.

Students followed the path traveled by urban waste materials, studied survey methods, techniques for resolving environmental conflicts, and the science of composting, and toured the student-operated F.H. King garden and compost program near campus. Two certified master gardeners delivered guest lectures about what items can and cannot be composted, insects that assist the composting process, and the ideal ratio of carbon-to nitrogen-based materials in a compost pile.

“We did lessons up front and field trips toward the end so we could use what we knew and see it in action,” Dungan says. “It worked out well; the students knew what questions to ask.”

Members of the class were then assigned to three community partners, assessing the composting goals of each organization and implementing concepts learned in class.

“Students are able
to apply what they've
spent four years
learning and realize
that their talents
and knowledge
have value.”

Encouraging students to problem-solve on their own can help them realize their breadth of knowledge, Ventura says.

“Students recognize that they have unique expertise or skills to contribute to the effort, leading to enhanced confidence and to learning from each other, as well as from the community members engaged in the class,” he explains.

The final projects ranged from tracking the benefits of community-scale organic waste collection to developing ways to increase recycling at city events and festivals, and from refurbishing compost bins to teaching community members and children how to compost.

Growing Food and Sustainability, a small youth-led, community-based sustainability initiative in Middleton, was one of the groups aided by students in the class. With the help of the designated compost queens – Cook, Wang and Weisheit – the organization overhauled their composting, creating a six-bin system complete with a detailed turning schedule.

Cook, a senior majoring in environmental studies and math, was excited to get her hands dirty. An avid composter herself, she sees the process of transforming garbage into a beneficial product as something magical.

“Growing Food and Sustainability knew they wanted a compost pile, but they didn’t have the time to put into learning more and getting things started,” Cook explains. “Our goal was to give them a functioning compost system with guidelines, and I believe we accomplished just that.”

Cook is hooked – she hopes to continue volunteering with the organization.

compostable beer cup station at community festival
Among their final projects, students
encouraged the composting of cups
and food waste at a neighborhood
festival. Photo courtesy Chloe Quinn.

“Part of our project was to provide them with an educational outline in case they want to teach their campers more about compost,” she says. “I have offered (almost begged, really) to assist them with some sort of compost camp.”

Dungan will soon finish her master’s program but hopes the class continues after her departure, given the success of the final projects and the students’ excitement throughout the experience.

“I was really surprised and just tickled with the students,” she says. “By the end of it, they were very engaged in the importance of composting and, more generally, environmentally sustainable waste management.”

Cook agrees and, after taking the class, encourages all students to participate in a service learning-based capstone course.

“In class, the hardest thing you have to figure out is [how to] solve a problem. In the real world, at least from what I’ve seen, sometimes the hardest part is figuring out what the problem is,” she says. “Hopefully, having experienced that challenge will make it easier when I join the working world.”