Empowering students to be change makers

This is a transcript of my presentation given at the Ashoka U Exchange at Brown University, February 20-22, 2014.

My elevator moment

For over five years I’ve been teaching courses on sustainability at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. I help students to understand and, ideally, take action on environmental and social issues.

Personally, I consider myself to be socially conscious and environmentally concerned. As much as possible, I try to “walk the talk” by living with compassion for people and the planet.

Despite my values, a few years ago I had formed the embarrassing habit of taking the elevator three floors to get to my office on campus. I had always silently cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, I had become one of them. Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it quite troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs.

How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to my students, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office? This was my elevator moment.

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom (Image from iStockphoto.com)
My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom (Image from iStockphoto.com)


Staircases and Frappuccinos

So, I decided to start a one semester challenge to only take the stairs while on campus and to count how many flights I actually climbed and descended.

One semester is a good time frame for a new challenge because it is short enough to be doable, but long enough to form a new routine. In fact, most experts suggest it takes two months to form a new habit.

Not only did I want to do good for the planet, but I also wanted to measure the benefits to me personally. After one semester I had taken just under one thousand flights of stairs, both up and down. Using a simple online calculator I learned that I burned roughly around 2,000 Calories, or 0.6 lbs of fat, over the course of the semester. This is equivalent to two coffee Frappuccinos every month but without the guilt. Now, in my books, that’s a change worth making.

How do you make change?

Changing anything in life is hard. We often possess the knowledge and skills needed to make a change, but without sufficient desire it simply won’t stick. For me, the incentive of two guilt-free Frappuccinos a month makes it easy to keep using the stairs. The warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m helping the planet is a bonus.

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom. My past courses on sustainability had focused squarely on the domain of the head, in other words, cognitive learning. This isn’t all bad. Cognitive learning lets you expand your knowledge base and enhance your critical thinking skills. In a nutshell, it helps you build book smarts.

While important, book smarts alone don’t create positive change in the world. For example, a strong understanding of the theory and history of music won’t make you a musician. You also have to practice, and eventually master, all the skills necessary to play your instrument; and, ideally, nurture a passion and caring for the music you play. All three domains of learning – the head, heart, and hand – should be developed to make a real contribution in the world.

Empowering students to be change makers

And so back in the Fall of 2009, I decided to overhaul my course to try to strike a balance between all three domains of learning. While I made many changes, the backbone of my new course was a capstone project called Project Change.

Project Change is a semester long group project designed to encourage students to become leaders and agents for positive change in the world. It gets students out of the classroom and into their communities to create positive and measurable social or environmental change.

There are only three rules to Project Change. The first rule forces students to link their project to something they care about. Whether their interests are in fashion or mountain biking doesn’t really matter. Nurturing passion for an issue is much easier if you link it to something you already care about.

The second rule forces students to get out of the classroom, and out of their inner circles, to create positive change in a broader community. This is done so the students will be able to develop the skills and competencies needed to make a contribution in the real-world, not just in the classroom.

The third rule forces students to measure and report the impacts of their projects. The key word here is measurable. By tracking specific metrics, the students are able to see the real impacts they make in the world.

Beauty on Duty

Let’s take a look at one example from this year’s class. This group of students wanted to make a difference in the lives of homeless women in Vancouver. So they created a project called Beauty on Duty. This brief two-minute video will tell their story:

What are the prerequisites to be a change agent?

One thing I always hear from students early in the semester is “We’re not in a position of authority to do anything. What difference can we really make?” So, early in the course, we have a look at some of the most important change agents throughout history. One of the key differences between these people is not all were in traditional positions of power when they made their biggest contributions. The moral of the story is you do not need authority to move mountains. These people did it and so can you.

In the final class of the term, I have the students list all their project impacts and then we aggregate them on the board at the front of the classroom. Since the students have all tracked their impacts using specific metrics, this turns out to be an easy task. But it’s a powerful and gratifying moment to recognize the incredible impacts the students have made and to clearly show they are indeed agents of change.

From the classroom to the community

What began as a single class project in 2009 is now a province-wide competition that has the power to influence real change in communities, and help develop important leadership skills within students.

Almost 30 industry partners have come on board to sponsor Project Change and donate amazing prizes for the students to win. More importantly, the involvement of these companies sends a clear signal to students that knowledge, skills and the desire to create change in the world is valued by industry.

Each year, we end with an awards gala to showcase all the projects and recognize the top teams. It’s also an opportunity for students to network with professionals from industry, and with each other.

In the first two years, 46 student teams (170 students) from nine universities and colleges took part in Project Change. We’re now in the third year of the competition and it looks to be our most impactful year yet.

Students from Camosun College accepting the award for Best Overall Project at the 2011 Project Change gala (Photo by LinkBC)
Students from Camosun College accepting the award for Best Overall Project at the 2011 Project Change gala (Photo by LinkBC)


How do you change the world in a semester?

So, how do you change the world in a semester? First, work on cultivating an attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm for an issue. By doing so, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in taking action. The importance of nurturing passion for an issue cannot be overstated – it is the fuel that powers you forward.

If passion fuels your interest in an issue, then knowledge provides the bedrock to create and contribute your own ideas. If you want to create beautiful music, it helps to have a firm understanding of the key theories and concepts in music. A strong base of knowledge provides the foundation to formulate your own ideas.

Finally, work on developing all the skills and competencies needed to make a contribution in the real world. Just as a musician needs to be proficient with her instrument, a change-maker needs to develop effective leadership, project management, organization, and communication skills. These skills will help you convert your ideas into reality.

With the right mix of passion, knowledge and skills, you’ll have everything you need to change your own corner of the world.

Change starts now

One last thing. If you want to test drive the power of change making for yourself, I will leave you with a challenge. Right now, challenge yourself to make one small change in your own life that will have a positive impact on the world. You don’t need to do it forever. Just do it for a semester… and see what happens. What’s your elevator moment?