WYSO

Commentary: The Energy Of Citizenship

Jul 3, 2017

Area college graduates are preparing to begin their careers or the next part of their educations.  WYSO commentator Bob Brecha is a professor at the University of Dayton and has been thinking about how his students look at sustainability issues inside the classroom and as citizens.

My training as a scientist was always in the lab, and when I teach classes, I’m very careful to “stick to the facts.”  I keep my opinions mostly to myself, or at least, I make it very clear when what I say is an opinion that’s open for discussion.  And I certainly don’t try to indoctrinate students into my way of thinking.   But neither I nor many of my students feel that it’s enough these days to just stick to the classroom.

Teaching classes and doing research on sustainability, renewable energy and climate change means that I’m often faced with questions from my students about what they can do to help move things forward faster.    And these students are increasingly aware that their academic work can be combined with their responsibilities as citizens.

Let me give a couple of examples from the recent past.

I’ve had several students who get their undergraduate degree in science or engineering, but have a more general sustainability focus as well.  They then decide to go to graduate school  to get a degree that includes both science and policy.  These students want to understand what motivates us to actually make changes, and how institutions are important in this process.

Another recent student wanted to complement his graduate studies in renewable energy with a project to understand how statewide energy policies are decided, and found out how messy that process can be.  He also learned that our legislators could have used some better, more impartial information than what they were given before making their decisions!

A final example is one that makes me very proud of our students.  Last fall the State Legislature was debating whether to get rid of renewable energy standards.  I learned that there would be  hearings in a Senate committee on the issue, and sent out a simple request to see if any students might be interested in going to Columbus to testify.  I left it at that, but within 24 hours, six students had found out how to submit testimony and did so.  They then organized themselves to make the trip to the Capitol and waited patiently for hours to be able to give their two-minute testimony in support of renewable energy.

I later heard from the students how excited they were to participate constructively in the political process in this way.  They felt good about their efforts even though the Committee Chair was visibly irritated that there was so much opposition. I also heard from many others at the hearing that they were impressed by how well-spoken the students were.  Maybe even more importantly, these other (mostly older) participants were energized by seeing a new generation starting to be heard, and speaking to the clean energy future they want for themselves.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha