Conference Connects Students Globally

UCI was the host of the third annual ‘Empowering Sustainability’ Conference last month, which served as a gathering of potential leaders and innovators in fields relating to global sustainability.
Experts in the various fields of Global Sustainability met with students for UCI’s Empowering Sustainability Conference as part of the School of Social Ecology’s Summer Seminar Series from July 22- 26 in the School of Education. The conference is part of a multi-national effort to educate future leaders about the need to protect the environment.

Courtesy of Braden Buckel

Courtesy of Braden Buckel

The seminar was organized by Professor John Whiteley, who was proud that he had the opportunity to get students from around the world to work together toward common goals.

“The next generation is going to deal with a tougher environment, plus the problems are getting worse so we are trying to move along the next generation,” Whitely said.

Whiteley organized the seminar under the School of Social Ecology and was inspired to organize the original Empowering Sustainability Seminar after he heard of a civil case in Mexico where two environmental lawyers who were in their sixties risked their lives to protect wildlife refuges in Mexico from corporations. He thought that these actions were brave on the lawyers’ part, but was dismayed that there were no young people involved.

“The idea came from sitting there with that Mexican case study and wondering, well our average age is 27, who’s bringing along the young people there,” he said.

Twenty students from UCI signed up to participate in the conference, most of whom were freshmen according to Whiteley, but there were also other undergraduate and graduate students. These students learned to cooperate and are working together on projects that they will continue for the rest of the year.

“They are working on an electronic journal, they are deep into their own projects and networking, people are doing what we wanted them to do, to engage and try to create a better world,” Whitely said.

The conference was a forum for those who had done research and were eager to share their findings with others. Students and experts were given a platform where they were free to present their projects as well as give advice to members of the audience who were doing similar projects.
The presentations included students and experts in a variety of fields such as engineering, biology, chemistry and others. Some of the projects presented included a study of the urbanization in China, a project proposal to seal off hazardous waste landfills, and a project to protect the coast of Baja California among others. Each person was allowed to present their project to the group and get feedback on their projects.

Ph.D. candidate Juliana Zanotto ran the presentations and believes that the seminar gave many the opportunity they needed to share their research with others. She helped to make the conference as open as possible and gave the fellows (attendees) more power over the schedule than they had in previous years,

“During the conference, they take ownership of the conference, sometimes they will change the schedule of the presentations because they think it works better or they will give some people more time to present or they will ask for more time for discussion. So they really take ownership of the conference,” Zanotto said.

Zanotto and Whiteley let the fellows run the conference and extended the time that the fellows had to discuss their own projects. Such measures are meant to improve the seminar by expanding the role of the fellows at future seminars.

“We used to have a lot more presentations by experts and a very short time for discussions among the fellows, this changed last year where we had discussions but in the evening and then this time we opened discussion time on Thursday and Friday,” Zanotto said.

The conference brought students from around the world and gave them the opportunity to present projects regarding sustainability and to collaborate on future projects. Students were able to work in groups and were tasked to create group projects that they are to work on throughout the year.

The wide mix of people and ideas did much to advance the conference according to Zanotto. It created what for many would be a once in a lifetime experience as no other conference is quite as diverse.

“It’s a conference that brings people together—people that probably wouldn’t necessarily be in the same room. So you have undergrads, we have graduate students, we have people representing private sector, the public sector, the government sector, the non-profit sector, and the educational institutions,” she said.

The conference hosted students from countries including Canada, Brazil, China and several other countries with the intention of spreading ideas and fostering cooperation between students. Zonatto believes that in doing so they have made this year’s conference a success and are set to create something that lasts longer than their conference.

“If we measure success based on what our goals were which was to connect those people and inspire them, to empower them, to do work I think it was a success because there is a lot of engagement.”