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Vail Daily column: College creates sustainable futures

Kim Langmaid
Valley Voices

I recently attended the first Community Partnership Advisory Council meeting for the Sustainability Studies program at Colorado Mountain College. The purpose of the committee is to benefit current and future students and the Eagle Valley community at-large by enhancing student engagement opportunities in the community.

Our local high school students who are soon graduating, and all of our communities throughout the Vail Valley, are fortunate to have such an incredible and innovative college degree program in our local “backyard.” The Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies, and the Certificate in Sustainability Leadership for people who already have a bachelor’s and want professional development in sustainability, both offer practically anyone in our community the opportunity to envision and create better futures while learning the skills to apply sustainability principles wherever they live and work.

Sustainability is a very dynamic field and sometimes difficult to explain.

“It’s not a static field with clear expectations like a degree in nursing or education would be. Students and faculty are learning and teaching for a future that is not settled or predictable,” said advisory committee member Luke Cartin, Vail Resorts’ senior mountain environmental affairs manager. Environmental sustainability is a key focus of Vail Resorts’ Epic Promise charitable giving program. The company provides scholarship funds for students in the sustainability studies program.

Sustainability is by definition an emergent, creative and interdisciplinary field that combines skills and problem-solving techniques from traditional disciplines such as economics, marketing and communications, environmental sciences and management, social studies, leadership and policy. And our mountain communities in the Vail Valley are an excellent place for students to gain practical hands-on experiences through community partnerships. Internship experiences have already taken place through partnerships between Colorado Mountain College and local organizations including Walking Mountains Science Center, town of Vail, Eagle County, Energy Smart Colorado, Eagle River Watershed Council and R.A. Nelson, one of the valley’s top sustainable building companies.

One of this year’s college graduates earning her Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies, Nikki Maline, worked with Walking Mountains and the town of Vail this past year to provide education and outreach to hundreds of Vail businesses and homeowners about the new town of Vail recycling ordinance. Sustainability is a rapidly growing field locally, nationally and globally and many local employers are adopting sustainable business practices through the Actively Green sustainable business program. There are currently 37 local businesses certified in sustainable best-practices that are implementing sustainability into their business culture while using a cloud-based sustainability management system to monitor their results.

Jay Cline, an entrepreneur and graduate of the sustainability studies program who attended the advisory council meeting said “there is always some aspect of sustainability happening somewhere in people’s lives or businesses, and they might not call it ‘sustainability,’ but you just need to find it and build upon it.” Another graduate, Bailey Matthews, who works for Eagle County Schools, says the word she uses to describe sustainability is balance.

“It’s about balancing economic prosperity with social equity and environmental stewardship. They go hand-in-hand to create the best solutions. The critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the sustainability studies program can be transferred to any kind of business or organization,” Matthews said.

Since I teach the Systems Thinking in Sustainability class at Colorado Mountain College, I love to think in terms of feedback loops and emergent properties, both concepts are aspects of all social, economic and ecological systems. Systems thinking is a method used for analysis and problem solving and is a highly relevant skill for anyone in a leadership or management position or involved in creating any kind of positive change in a system.

What I observe happening with the Sustainability Studies program in our communities is a dominant reinforcing feedback loop, where local businesses and organizations benefit from the involvement and training of students, and where the students benefit from hands-on experiences supporting local businesses and helping them integrate this new and dynamic field of sustainability into their business culture.

So, you might ask, what emergent properties will result from this dynamic reinforcing feedback loop relationship with our communities? Will it be increased economic development? More environmental stewardship? Higher standards for water conservation? Better transportation systems with less carbon emissions? Less local poverty and better living conditions? More locally grown healthy food? Well, I can’t ultimately tell you. Our future is “unsettled and unknown,” but if we place our bets in the Colorado Mountain College Sustainability Studies program, we’re guaranteed to be creating better and more sustainable future.

Kim Langmaid, Ph.D., is the founder and vice president at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon and she teaches sustainability studies at Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at kiml@walkingmountains.org.


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