The University of Massachusetts Amherst


In Spring 2022 and for the first time, a hybrid version of a popular 4-credit Gen Ed course – Sustainability and the Built Environment (BCT150) – featured in-person experiential learning activities at both the Amherst and Mount Ida campuses and remote engagement with more than a dozen interdisciplinary practitioners, alumni and external partners located throughout the world.

While on-site at the Mount Ida campus in Newton, students worked side-by-side with licensed architects, engineers, sustainable materials experts and conducted a waste audit with the City of Newton. They engaged with the construction site superintendent responsible for a $7 million renovation campus project pursuing LEED certification, and explored building science principles (heat transfer, convection, and conduction) with high-tech Infrared cameras as they surveyed various buildings on the 72-acre campus.  

While on-site at the main campus in Amherst, students worked side-by-side with faculty, staff, and researchers in the Wood Mechanics Research Lab where they explored properties of building materials and tested hand-made prototypes of wood beams with high-tech, industrial grade equipment. Students used custom molds and shaped thin wood veneers to form miniature skateboards (i.e. fingerboards) – the activity emulated the manufacturing process for cross laminated timbers (CLT) – a featured technology in the iconic Olver Design Building and home base for the BCT Program (Building Construction and Technology).

A flexible classroom approach – with in-person and online activities - provided opportunities to learn together, interact together, discuss together while also engaging with experts in diverse fields such as engineering, materials science, information technology, renewable energy, urban planning, and with pioneer partners such as Studio G Architects (Boston, MA) – a certified women-owned businesses that is diverse by design (multi- racial and multi-ethnic, LGBTQIA+ friendly, 65% women).

Students explored sustainability in the built environment through the process of making (videos, drawings, models, reflections), through ethnographic research of Boston’s urban neighborhoods (Dorchester, Roxbury, Nubian Square), and with a robust series of public peer-to-peer debate presentations on environmental inequality and the seminal work of landscape designer and public artist Walter Hood – principal in the Hood Design Studio (Berkeley, CA).  Students also received training as part of the internationally recognized Carbon Literacy Project (CLP) – focused on topics such as basic climate science, UMass carbon mitigation plans, environmental justice, corporate responsibility, and specific actions to take on individual, collective, and governmental levels.

“Transporting students several time between Amherst and Newton and coordinating activities in a busy research lab was a challenge, but the students benefited from more hands-on learning and facetime with real-world. Hybrid learning requires more than the purchase of the latest and greatest technologies – it requires field testing, calibration and applying what is learned about how students learn, with inclusivity top of mind,” said Dr. Paul J. Wolff III, Instructor of Record for the Mount Ida-based section of the course. "The ‘Flex Learning’ approach aligns with the University’s goals of meeting tomorrow’s challenge of providing high quality education to students anywhere and anytime."

Wolff, based in the College of Natural Science (CNS), also experimented with live polling software, gamification strategies, 360 panorama cameras, Go-Pros (strapped to his head during labs or on his bike during tours), ‘track talks’ (group discussions during laps around the athletic track) and augmented reality activities designed to conjure remote construction sites – strategies he observed to improve access for all types of students – traditional and non-traditional.

A culminating capstone project provided numerous choices for assignments which allowed students to align personal interests with course learning objectives. The result was a panoply of creative work such as Minecraft models, posters, videos featuring high performance buildings, and original drawings that illustrated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a system developed by the United Nations as a universal call to end poverty, protect the planet, and to ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

For more information about Wolff’s experiments with engagement pedagogies and work as a TIDE Ambassador (Teaching for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity), please contact pwolff [at] umass [dot] edu.

Article posted in Academics for Prospective students