Using Written Reflections to Encourage Students to Explore Waste through their own Lenses

In this section, Kate Mytty shares how reflection papers in the course were structured in a way to help students explore the topic of waste from their own perspectives. She also discusses how keeping the reflection paper assignments “open,” allowed students to incorporate into the learning experience topics not included in the syllabus.

Students came to EC.716 D-Lab: Waste from a variety of backgrounds. Some were business-oriented and were interested in learning how to create ventures from waste. Others were interested in public policy and were likely going to work for the government and advocate for change at the policy level. Still others were designers who wanted to build things out of waste or from materials that would become waste somewhere down the line. Our goal was to allow students to explore waste through their own lenses.

One way we accomplished this goal was to assign three reflection papers that students could approach from a variety of perspectives. The first paper asked students to think critically about waste technology, the second about material streams, and the third about partnerships and enterprises. For each paper, students self-selected topics. They shared one of their reflection papers with the class in a 30-minute presentation. This was their opportunity to teach the class about topics relevant to their own fields.

One woman taught the class about micro beads in beauty products. She poured water through a sock filled with a particular beauty product and demonstrated how the micro beads remained after the product filtered through the sock. For a long time the effects of these micro beads on fish and water life had been invisible. She spoke about regulations that are beginning to emerge to protect water systems from these micro beads.

Because we created space for students to approach the topic of waste through their own lenses, student[s] [were] able to introduce the class to topic[s] that would have otherwise gone un-explored. [This] enriched everyone’s learning experience.

— Kate Mytty

Micro beads comprise an important and interesting waste element to study, but I hadn’t personally thought to connect them to the waste class prior to her presentation. I wouldn’t have thought to schedule a class session around the topic. Because we created space for students to approach the topic of waste through their own lenses, this student was able to introduce the class to a topic that would have otherwise gone un-explored. She enriched everyone’s learning experience.

Another student, who was interested in venture capital, chose to explore waste technology through the lens of a technology portfolio. In particular, he focused on the new technologies involved in the collection, transportation, processing, and the disposal of waste, along with the areas in which major private waste organizations and venture capitalist founders are investing. His was a really interesting presentation because he raised all sorts of questions about how public policy should respond to these changing technologies.

I think this was one of the most interesting things about not specifying the subjects students had to write about in their reflection papers: it meant we could focus on understanding what people were researching through their analysis and what approaches they were taking to understand waste. This focus on students’ perspectives also meant that I learned about topics that I will include in future iterations of the course. That’s really what we want as teachers: to learn something new each time we engage students in thinking about important content in our fields.