Epitomizing “progress and service” with SLS program

Photo courtesy of Yonatan Weinburg

What do a Capstone Design course and class focused on Afterlives of Slavery have in common? Both are Serve-Learn-Sustain affiliated classes.

Serve-Learn-Sustain, or SLS, is based on Tech’s motto of “Progress and Service.”

SLS came about due to Tech’s most recent Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) is the group in charge of accreditation for degree-granting higher education institutions in the Southern states, from Texas to Virginia.

A major part of the reaffirmation of accreditation process is the QEP. Tech’s previous QEPs include the International Plan and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. This reaffirmation occurs every 10 years, and for Tech, the most recent reaffirmation was in 2015.

In Fall 2013, about a year before the QEP was due, Tech had an open call for concept papers from groups of at least five academic faculty members spanning at least two colleges.

Dr. Beril Toktay, a professor within the Scheller College of Business, led a proposal centered around sustainability.

Dr. Ellen Zegura, current chair of the School of Computer Science, submitted a proposal on community-based learning.

The QEP Advisory Board decided to combine these two proposals into Serve-Learn-Sustain to focus on “creating sustainable communities.”

SLS can be seen all across campus, from partnered student organizations to workshops and affiliated courses. SLS employs five full-time staff members, including Dr. Ruthie Yow, who specializes in finding community partnerships and service learning.

“What SLS strives to do is to help students and faculty think in these broad and creative ways about what sustainability is and what it has to do with service, or community,” Yow said.

Part of SLS is giving context to sustainable communities.

“Everyone has a different idea of what community is, and everyone has a different idea of what sustainability is,” Yow said.

A “sustainable community” does not fit into a singular definition. SLS expands the conversation to one about equity at the center of society, nature and technology. Their “big ideas” range from managing the commons to smart cities to doing good in your neighborhood.

There is no doubt that Tech is a highly innovative place. That is a major reason Serve-Learn-Sustain was chosen as the Quality Enhancement Plan.

However, it is easy for some Tech students to submit to the idea that sustainability is someone else’s problem or that there is nothing a single student can do to contribute in a meaningful way.

SLS aims to combat that by giving a clear pathway for further engagement and focusing on several over-arching themes.

“When you’re intellectually engaged in a class, whether you’re a CS major or you’re in the architecture school, if someone can offer you a clear illustration of the connection between the work that you do and something happening in the community that you live next to, then usually just offering that connection is a spark for investment in what happens to people you don’t know,” Yow said.

Once a student gets that spark from an SLS affiliated course, they do not have to stop there. The SLS website allows you to search for upper level affiliated courses based on theme, “big idea” and college or school.

If you have continued interest in sustainable communities and want to do a project, the next step would be to get in touch with Yow who can find a partner for your project. Eventually, you would be able to do a capstone that had a focus on sustainability, using SLS and their resources. Your design project could then lead to a career that further develops your interests and talents in sustainability.

“You would use a recommended employer because you came and talked to us, to engage in the beginning of your career with an organization doing the work that you care about,” Yow said.

Coursework is not the only way to get involved with SLS. At least once a month, there are events and workshops, including a series based on the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

When an esteemed guest comes to campus, SLS provides opportunities for highly driven students to engage with the speaker outside of the talk. For instance, in mid September, President Emeritus Dr. Wayne Clough came to campus to speak on climate change and Tech’s role.

A handful of students who attended that event are going to meet with Clough and talk with him over breakfast about their ideas and networks for approaching solutions to climate change.

“We are always wanting help students stay engaged rather than go to a talk and feel like ‘Oh that was neat.’ We always want to provide a pathway for further engagement,” Yow said. “There’s always a way to move forward and to continue to build a relationship. The idea is that nothing that we do is ever a one-off.”

Most recently, SLS has worked on the application for ATLRCE. An RCE (Regional Centre of Expertise) is a U.N. initiative committed to implementing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals at the regional and local level.

These goals include no poverty, zero hunger, quality education and sustainable cities and communities. There are currently 156 RCEs around the world and only six RCEs in the U.S.

The ATLRCE is a joint effort by higher education institutions around Georgia, from Tech and Emory to Spelman, UGA, Clark Atlanta and more.

The vision of the Greater Atlanta RCE is to create a network of all sectors of Atlantan society to connect and support diverse collaborations. A major goal is to bridge the gap between learning and development.

Approval for the ATLRCE plan is expected in January.

In the end, SLS stands at the intersection of Tech’s motto and vision: Where progress and service meet innovation.

“The notion is that you don’t do your work in a vacuum and you don’t do it just for your CV or resume. You do it because you can do it in concert with a broader network of people,” Yow said.

For more information on Serve-Learn-Sustain, including resources for finding affiliated courses or workshops, visit serve-learn-sustain.gatech.edu.