Two.One.Five Magazine: The GREEN Program’s Global Classroom Experience


Jun 23, 2015

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“Experience is the greatest teacher.” Coming up with new ways to offer new experiences to students is an ever-evolving challenge. When successful, this spawns ideas and industry to help shape our world. Rapid globalization, climate shift, growing populations, and intercultural exchanges of communication and information are defining this century. How we react to the new challenges and rising demand on our world — while we move forward with a diminishing supply — will in time define this generation.

It can be the little things that make a big difference. Scrapping the entire traditional education system is clearly overdoing it, but current methods are undoubtedly in need of improvements and change. The rising costs of obtaining degrees, with arguably lessening value to employers, is enticing students to think more outside the box to gain skills for their field and stand out from their peers. Just the same, employers seek employees who have learned skills through unique experiences. So in theory, this adds up to an opportunity for educators to get students engaged and enrolled, and for students to receive a more valuable education readying them for potential jobs. This will hopefully and so importantly assist in making a positive impact on our environment.

This belief is what drives Co-Founder and CEO Melissa Lee and her team at Philadelphia based and internationally reaching The GREEN Program (Global Renewable Energy EducationNetwork) — The Experiential education program for future renewable energy & sustainability leaders. Their programs are saying in essence: What better way to educate than to inspire young minds to work toward making our planet a better place, while offering a jumpstart to the newest potential members beginning a career in a difficult job market? And why not travel and have a bit of fun while doing it?

The GREEN Program ventures beyond the important lessons one learns from a textbook, developing curricula that utilize and activate in the real world. The goal is to provide exciting, supplemental, hands-on, lasting and impactful learning experiences so sadly absent when only teaching/learning in the traditional classroom setting. They are currently running programs in Peru and Iceland, and are set to launch their new pilot program in Philadelphia next month, July 2015 [more info HERE].

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We could go on, but we’ll let Lee and Brady Halligan [Director of Strategic Partnerships & Enrollment] provide their perspective. I chatted with the two at The Green Program’s current home [Pipeline Philly] about many things including: Why experiential learning is key; the newest GREEN program launching this summer in Philadelphia; and how/why they feel their initiatives will make a lasting impact for many years to come.

Aran Hart: Talk about the main pillars and characteristics that make the GREEN program courses “The GREEN Program courses”…

Brady: As frustrated but motivated students at Rutgers we recognized several emerging signals  of change. The job market is tough and super competitive for recent grads and it is extremely difficult for a grad to enter into an emerging industry like energy with lack of industry experience. HR and hiring professionals are expressing that GPA and University brand are no longer critical for landing a job. Students also needed more unique experiences outside of the University… leadership skills and industry IQ among other things.

You need global experiences. Also, analyzing the study abroad industry, we found that most of the programs offered through universities were not available for students in the STEM fields, focused on going abroad for a semester, or a full year, and lacked career focus. This way it was not only an extra cost, but students would have to choose between an important internship position and/or at times jeopardize earning credits that may not work toward graduation. Our programs are short term and run during spring/summer/winter breaks, so they don’t put students in an either/or situation.

Melissa: At 19 years old and a sophomore on campus, there wasn’t enough offered through traditional study abroad options and I was ultimately frustrated with the traditional university setting. Some of the best things I learned, I learned off campus when I was interning, working, and seeking opportunities that were going to expose a student to industry and really supplement what we were learning in the classroom.. When I founded The GREEN Program, I set out to build a platform to ignite industry exposure, interdisciplinary collaboration, and build globalized mindsets that would drive students’ passions to be better students, and ultimately better employees, leaders, and global citizens.

Brady: We focused on the different types of sustainability curricula that were coming out of universities at that time: business, engineering, policy, liberal arts, and also entrepreneurship. We knew entrepreneurship had to be a key focus for us — as it is a main drive and focus of this millennial generation.

Melissa: We took what we knew about the existing study abroad model, traditional classroom settings, and the experience students needed to get a job they were happy with… and mixed it all together. From that we ultimately created our dream study abroad program.

Why do you feel “experiential” learning is key? And how do you integrate such experiences into your programs?

Brady: The traditional universities at large, and State public universities in particular, have overcrowded classrooms with traditional lectures. You are learning all these concepts and theories but you really have to see these things first hand to drive your passion and make those connections. When you get outside of the classroom/textbook setting, you see “it” in real life; see the implications, see where the industry is going, engage with experts integrating that knowledge. It makes more sense when you return to the classroom and you’re able to thrive from your experience.

Melissa: It’s powerful to use experiential learning to really drive home key learnings to a generation like this with shortening attention spans and more distractions. It’s the way for us to inspire and/or reconnect with our passions.

That being said, you can’t replace traditional learning styles — learning from an expert through literature, tests, lectures etc… That’s still very important and cannot be completely replaced. What we know is that the experiential aspect of traditional curricula needs to be focused on now more than ever as a critical supplement to a student’s education. That’s where we fit in and shape our role in the educational sphere.

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Talk about the lasting impact, or resonance, that immersion and integration into communities using educational programs like yours can create. Examples…

Brady: The impact is significant to the countries and areas we go to and also to the students returning home. We started in Costa Rica with service projects, making impacts in certain developing towns such as rainwater collection systems and advocacy work to spread awareness. We were able to make changes to national building codes there. That gave us the knowledge and realization that WOW! – this program can make a global impact in the places we go.

In Iceland, where we host programs, we’ve connected with the major industries and have gained such incredible momentum that our students were invited to lunch with the President of Iceland. Our students had the opportunity to present their capstone projects — which they work on during their program. That impact… students visiting foreign country being able to present his/her project to the President is huge.

And for the President, it’s also amazing because he has student leaders from all over the world, coming into his dining room and saying, “This is what we feel will shape our world. And we think Iceland is doing a great job, I’m learning a lot by coming here.” This empowers and encourages students, gets them excited, connects them and shows them the world. They are also grasping new ideas and transforming them into something tangible that they take back into their communities and end up initiating sustainability initiatives.

Melissa: We’ve hosted incredible students with specific missions around motivations like “I need to figure out this solution for my home village in India to get them off the grid and alleviate them from poverty.” Right now we’re in Peru doing more advocacy work with a local elementary school system, creating greenhouses, and sustainable implementations. We are helping this local school attain their goal of making sure each child gets at least one meal per day. The more students we bring to work on projects like these with us, the more awareness and knowledge we help spread to the children in these communities. We’re excited to see the long term impacts on our relationships in Peru.

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Talk about the students whom The GREEN Program is attracting…

Brady: We’re excited to have people reaching out to us from all over the world. We attract student leaders and young professionals who are eager for more. We’re realizing a very diverse group of students from diverse backgrounds, and different areas of study. We have students who study engineering, mathematics, and sciences of course, but also psychology, arts, language, and culture. It’s been exciting to see like minded participants around our program who want to help break down barriers and contribute in the field of renewable energy and sustainability.

What/who was the source of your initial interest in helping to sustain a green planet?

Melissa: In 2009 I went to Costa Rica and toured a power plant. I was standing under a wind turbine having our conversation translated with the head engineer there. I connected how this, plus that, equals energy… feeding the grid, feeding this community. Such a simple concept was something that more people needed to be exposed to. I felt a sense of urgency for other students to see this concept first hand and know more about other energy options.

To many, looking at it from the outside, being green or focusing on sustainability can seem like an extreme overhaul or in some cases cost prohibitive… Give, I’m assuming a rebuttal, or opinion to such remarks…

Melissa: They’re not wrong. It can be hard to change a previous process or system, and it’s a long term commitment. But in terms of sustainability, it comes down to making a conscious decision to investment in the quality of life for a country, company, community, or person. Our programs don’t just say renewable energy is THE answer. We expose our students to both the pros, and the issues involved. Being too extreme in any one direction I think is negative. There are the extreme environmentalists — and their cause is great — but to be able to understand the balance behind that… that there needs to be financial feasibility to actually make the world run properly, is crucial. I agree and am not ignorant of the critique regarding prohibitive costs etc. One day we hope — and this is what we are working towards — there will be a financial reason for people to be able to make it work and say “Wait, it makes sense financially AND we can do something socially impactful…?” That’s when equilibrium is found.

If you start a business thinking that way, building your business model with “green/sustainable” in mind, I think you can save a lot on your bottom line by initiating that way, and avoiding the change over…

Melissa: Yes, either starting a business or providing input to existing companies can make an incredible impact with this in mind. As a consumer base we need to remember the power we hold even on an individual level. Our generation of millennials are actually turning things around and driving demand that businesses are taking note of. So many of us are acting something towards sustainability goals on our own that it builds into a force that is literally changing the frameworks of how businesses are being conducted down to the socially-responsible, eco-friendly packaging they decide to use next.

Brady: It is so important to be exposed to the right information and different perspectives when starting a business to create a culture that harnesses innovation for success. That relates back to our program and what we’re trying to provide to our students… exposure, inspiration, and providing knowledge so they can see for themselves. More and more often we have applicants coming from Texas and oil industry backgrounds saying “I want to learn how to make this industry more sustainable and efficient.” We have awesome testimonials from our kids coming back saying, “Wow, I didn’t know we could do this… I never knew we could make such a big difference.”

What makes Philadelphia the right place for the green program and why is the GREEN program right for Philadelphia?

Brady: We started at Rutgers and had momentum with an office on campus, excited as college students starting a business. When we graduated we had to figure out where we were going to go — both to live and also for the business. The culprits came up, you know, New York, San Francisco, Boston, even Boulder Colorado was on the radar.

But being from Philadelphia, I knew there is something special aboutmy home  Philadelphia … I was aware of the exciting sustainability initiatives happening as well as a focus on entrepreneurship and technology. We really felt like we could actually thrive here, not just be in a rat race. We could make a name for ourself and at the same time not lose all the connections we had at Rutgers. We’re close to D.C. and NYC , we can get anywhere, it’s a hub that is rapidly changing and growing and we wanted to be a part of that growth.

The idea for the GREEN  program is understanding trends and how students are moving globally. We want to help put Philadelphia on the map as a great place to come and study sustainable design and urban regeneration. That’s the topic of our new program in Philly. Our thought is that if we attract enough students here (both internationally and nationally), we can showcase the great initiatives AND the issues — not shying away from the major issues that are happening here — of a major U.S. city in the midst of massive growth. We can showcase all different aspects, expose them to universities here, and hopefully they’ll come study here, and then stay.

One major problem is the brain drain. They go to New York City, they go to San Francisco, they go abroad, they go work for bigger companies. One of our major goals is that we can encourage people to stay here and give back to the community, focused around the initiatives that are already working here, already helping to put the city on the map. To say that we are going to solve poverty or reform the education system is far beyond our scope.. but hey, maybe some of our students will be able to come here and solve these issues. That would be awesome!

What are your goals for the Philadelphia initiative and where do you see both the biggest need, and most positive change taking place for this city and its community? Specifically in regards to sustainability…

Melissa: We need help with people voicing what they need in the community. So we can put them into direct contact with our students. That’s a big ask on our end because we have talent and labor, and smart engineers and architects coming who want to come and make an impact and we need to put them to work. So whether that’s community gardens, implementing green roofs, solar installations, whatever the city needs — that’s what we’re here for. We need meaningful work that our program can implement for the city.

Our students also work on capstone projects that focus on existing innovations and figuring out ways to implement this in developing communities and other countries too. We empower our students by showing them what is possible and challenge them to act on it after their program. We want to know about more of the issues our communities are facing and need help highlighting these issues. A lot of what we’re doing is focusing on some of the green works initiatives that the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability had plotted out. We hope this will help a lot of the complex issues underserved communities are facing. This is our pilot program in Philadelphia and it will be a great challenge to see what our students can do. Then we’ll get feedback and continue improving the program. Ask us that question again in August!

Talk about the partnering with universities to help build curricula you are doing and how that may hint at a changing landscape for our education system…

Brady: I think we are a piece to the puzzle, of this revolution in education. We aren’t competing with universities. We are a great supplement for a specific type of student: student leaders; somebody who’s driven; somebody who wants to leave a positive impact on the world; somebody who wants to engage with other like minded students in a collaborative effort; somebody who’s unsatisfied just sitting at a desk. These are the types of students we’re seeking out and recruiting.

Universities are recognizing the importance of globalizing their campuses, pushing for more internationalization, and sending their engineers abroad to learn, for example. Schools are becoming more aware of our track record in these efforts. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we are partnering with key faculty and administrators at schools to develop curriculum that embeds our program into their curriculum. We strongly feel that experiential education  abroad shouldn’t be supplemental to your education, rather it should be infused within a degree. If you’re signing up for an environmental science degree, you should be traveling outside your classroom to be immersed in a specific area that needs help with environmental science and exposes you to career options while developing your leadership capabilities.

Melissa: Students shouldn’t have to choose between taking a summer class and global industry exposure … It should be built into the university experience. Scholarships should be revolved around that, financial aid should be revolved around that. It shouldn’t be a separate entity. Philadelphia University, Bucknell, Penn State, Rutgers have all gotten involved on partnership levels, and our students are joining us from over 250 universities around the world.

It’s exciting to be able to embed our curriculum and see other Universities and intergovernmental agencies back our efforts. We’re partnered with the World Bank’s climate initiative and Institute for International Education, and have received support from many others. Those types of connections that we’re making with industry, corporations, governmental entities, nonprofits and the education sector are huge because it gives our students more opportunities than just sitting in a classroom. 

This program will only work with the collaboration of the Universities because a degree is still extremely valuable. And we are helping Universities become more appealing to students. We are here because this is something students really need, and using the world as our classroom is something that was missing from our current educational models. 

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