Learning to link sustainability theory and practice with the people behind Gala

Originally published: 
September, 2019

Galaxy: the name sounds out of this world. Yet the second Galaxy sustainability learning exchange, held on Thursday, June 20, and Friday, June 21, 2019, at the Rackham Building in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was rooted in local experiential learning. The annual gathering on engaged learning about sustainability science, practice, and policy connects users and makers of Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSCs) on the open access platform Gala, which was built at the University of Michigan School for Environment & Sustainability (SEAS).

This year, Galaxy attracted trainers, educators, and visionaries from civic, professional, secondary, and higher education arenas from around the country and world. Many had seen one another’s multimedia, multilingual modules on Gala, but wanted to hear more about how such cases had been made, used, and updated. And while few came seeking a dance party, one did break out between sessions, inspired by Sudanese-Canadian peace activist, educator, and musician Emmanuel Jal.

Attendees were primed with an introduction from MSC Project Manager Meghan Wagner and Media Director Ed Waisanen, who illustrated how behind nearly every case on Gala is a dedicated team working to make complex systems more sustainable. Examples from our own backyard followed, as the City of Ann Arbor’s Sustainability & Innovations Manager Missy Stults opened with a review of local climate efforts to "manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.” Stults was followed by Jal, who expanded our thoughts with his reflections, on World Refugee Day, as a former child soldier and refugee of South Sudan. Galaxy is about specific issues, but also about big picture thinking. "For you to own your mind," he said, "you must have a dream driven by a purpose.” Emmanuel Jal's multiple appearances punctuated the proceedings and kept us anchored in a global vision of the meaning of sustainability efforts.

Jeff Carroll shares his experience with Waste to Wealth workforce initiatives during the urban wood master class.Master Class

Galaxy 2019’s “how to” master class offered hands-on instruction from Sarah HinesShaun PrestonJeff Carroll (pictured), and Steve Freeman, leaders within the United States Department of Agriculture (Urban Forest Lab), the City of Baltimore, the visionary NGO Humanim, and the corporation Room & Board, respectively.

Together the four close collaborators led Thursday morning's learning about Cross-Sector Collaborations for Intervention in Complex Urban Systems. Breaking down the financial, social, and environmental benefits of wood reuse from blighted urban areas, they guided participants through the hilarity of an on-your-feet simulation modeling complex socio-ecological systems and helping us grasp the science behind Baltimore’s urban wood story.

The team also explained their annual urban wood academy, post-incarceration employment pipeline, and beautiful furniture that produce crucial revenue streams for social and environmental change. Their award-winning case Reclaiming Wood, Lives, & Communities is available for free on Gala.

Working Group

We were back on our feet after a reliably delicious Zingerman’s lunch, as SEAS’ own Sheila Schuellerguided us through a grounded review of academic-community collaboration models.

Civic-campus working group: Sheila Schueller [center] enlists help to illustrate the challenge & opportunity of effective academic/community partnerships. Left to right: Sarah Hines, Sue Shink, Bret Fickes, Allyson Wiley, Brianna Broderick, Samir Shah, Lisa Bradshaw, Nate Phipps, & Kyle Hart.Ellen Kuhn of U-M’s Academic Innovation, offered a framework to make sense of the large variety of civic-campus engagement efforts. Claire L. Dancz and Susan Reeves of Clemson University explored how academic programs at other schools are connecting students with federal agencies and communities adjusting to rising incidence of natural disaster damage. Chris Mueller and Claire Nuttall of the U-M Ross School of Business Multidisciplinary Action Projects taught us how a more mainstream graduate school program treats the question of student engagement, screening their students’ Totally Not Scripted ConversationsPaul FontaineRichard Norton, & Paul Seelbach spoke on their work with the Michigan Engaging Community through the Classroom (MECC) Initiative.

The day ended with MSC Director Rebecca Hardin introducing lightning talks about trends toward more community-driven curricular and lifelong learning. These included Neeraja Aravamudan, U-M Associate Director for Teaching & Research at the Ginsberg Center for Community Service and LearningJohn Hoinville and Tim Fisher of the inclusive Ann Arbor tech company Alfa JangoBelinda Bardwell, citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (Anishanaabe), Board President of the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), and member of the Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission; and Irina Prentice of the London-based digital education innovation collaborative Encounteredu.com.

Case Exchange

Friday’s events opened with the rapid-fire Case Exchange. Convened by Meghan Wagner, we heard seven-minute lightning talks featuring a stellar range of disciplines from U-M and beyond. Presenters and audience alike enjoyed the dynamic format. (Thanks, Galaxy mastermind Meg Czerwinski!) The lightning talks fell into three groups—classroom, cohort, & community.

Classroom talks included graduate, professional, and undergraduate examples. Nate Phipps and Allyson Wiley of U-M’s Center for Education, Design, Evaluation, and Research presented their case in progress on the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellows Program’s Co-Creation of Modules for Sustainability Education Practitioners as/and Teachers. U-M Associate Professor of History, Perrin Selcer, reported high student satisfaction and a more pleasant grading experience with Piloting Cases as Assignments in Environmental History. Shaina Opperman and Nancy Love of U-M’s Civil and Environmental Engineering shared their case about how a urine-diverting toilet on campus is linked to agricultural experiments and improvements in Linking Classroom Teaching with Infrastructure Changes for Campus SustainabilityTom Logan, a recent alumnus of U-M Industrial and Operations Engineering, asked hard questions in Ethics in the Modern Age: How Do We Protect Our Communities from Ourselves?, which he will introduce to his students when he starts as new faculty at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Xuehua Liu of Tsinghua University’s School of the Environment worked with Bret Fickes of the MSC project and SEAS's Olivia Mitchinson to share their case on Giant Panda Conservation in Wolong [China] National Nature Preserve. SEAS’s Karen Alofs shared tips from Developing a Series of Great Lakes Cases, where students stepped into a different practitioner's case each week.

Cohort talks featured strategies for building camaraderie and coherence in groups of learners and teachers. MSC's Ed Waisanen shared insights on Audio Storytelling: Connecting Case Producers, Practitioners, & Consumers. The U-M School of Nursing's Anthony Williams spoke on the challenge of Developing a Sustainability Plan in the Clinical Learning CenterHenrike Florusbosch of the U-M African Studies Center outlined emerging connections within the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars Program. In her talk Make a Short Story Long: Teaching Sustainability on the Longue DuréeMichaela Thompson of the Harvard University Center for the Environment encouraged long-term cases with multiple decision makers, in contrast to many of MSC’s single-decision cases. We also gained an exciting window into our peer and potential partner’s work in Lansing, from Mike Everett and Crystal Eustice of the Michigan State University College of Natural Resources on Core Courses for Community Sustainability.

Community talks offered strategies and philosophies of liaison and learning across the world and in our own backyards. Ecojustice frameworks were spotlighted by Kristi Wilson of the U-M Flint School of Nursing and Erin Stanley of Wayne State University’s Social Work & Anthropology program in The Crisis and the Shutoffs: Water in Detroit and FlintPriscila Papias of U-M's Trotter Multicultural Center spoke on Climate Change and Wellness with personal examples from Southeast Los Angeles. Former City of Ann Arbor environmental coordinator Matthew Naud (now of adapt.city consulting and the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network) spoke on his use of the 1,4-dioxane contamination case to cultivate Community to Community Conversations on Water Quality: from Ann Arbor to KathmanduKyle Hart of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council outlined his work with Teach for the Watershed: Building the Next Generation of Great Lakes Advocates. And last but not least, SEAS's Mark Lindquist presented his incorporation of 3D and Virtual Reality Tools for Participatory Planning.

The Last Animals Q&A [left to right]: John Mitani, Kate Brooks, Bilal Butt, Emmanuel Jal, & Michaela Thompson.Screening & Case Awards

Galaxy 2019 ended with a screening of The Last Animals at the historic Michigan Theater with director Kate Brooks in attendance, followed by a moving spoken word performance by Emmanuel Jal. Brooks’ documentary follows conservationists, scientists, and activists battling poachers and criminal networks to protect elephants and rhinos.

From conflict zones in Africa to behind the scenes of Asian markets to United States policy battles, the film takes an intense look at the global response to the ongoing slaughter and the desperate measures taken to genetically rescue the northern white rhino, which is on the edge of extinction. The energy was palpable in the theater during the Q&A session expertly moderated by Michaela Thompson of Harvard University with Brooks, Jal, and U-M scholars of African conservation Bilal Butt and John Mitani. Rather than ending with a feeling of defeat, Brooks offered us ways to take action.

Before the film, this year’s red carpet also featured our award-winning case production teams for 2019 and past winners like Lauren Boone of Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit and Jayson Toweh of Atlanta (now at the US Environmental Protection Agency), who generously dressed up and returned to Ann Arbor to announce this year’s winners.

Local Washtenaw International High School student Elie Damey delivered the trophies—beautiful ceramic plates crafted by local ceramic artist John Leyland—to this year’s teams and helped to coordinate the event. MSC’s Bella Isaacs-Thomas made sure those who couldn’t attend heard the news on social media.

Congratulations to our winners:

[left] Sarah Hines, Neha Srinivasan, Shaun Preston, & Jeff Carroll; [center] Mike Kinzler & Éamonn Fetherston; [right] Flora Yifan HeThe Award for Impact went to Sarah Hines, Neha Srinivasan, Lauren Marshall, and Morgan Grove(with help from Jeff Carroll, Cindy Truitt, Max Pollock, Shaun Preston, Erik Dihle, Mike Galvin, Gene Wilson, Dianna Bauer, Steve Freeman, & Michael Brotman) for the Baltimore case behind our Master Class: Reclaiming Wood, Lives, and Communities: How do we turn a waste stream into an asset that revitalizes cities?


The Award for Innovation was given to Éamonn Fetherston, Michael Kinzler, and Shelie Miller for their imaginative time-travel format in the case _Assembling Our Transportation Future: How could policies in the early 20th century have shaped more sustainable transportation systems?


And the Award for Inclusion went to Flora Yifan He, Juan Pablo Baldiviezo, Arun Agrawal, Vicente Candaguira, and Ivette Perfecto for their bilingual Spanish/English case Guardians of the Forests: How should an indigenous community in eastern Bolivia defend their land and forests?

Join us in 2020!

Join us in making the case(s) for sustainability! Galaxy will reconvene June 18th & 19th, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan with a focus on K-12 & community sustainability learning. You can submit suggested presentations and pre-register at galaxy.learngala.com.