Dr. Karen Magid, Huston-Tillotson University

Sustainability, Environmental Justice, and the Power of Student Engagement
Episode 4 | May 15, 2018

Hosts Kyle and Sherren talk with Karen Magid, PhD, the Director of Sustainability and STEM at Huston-Tillotson University and the Co-Executive Director of The Dumpster Project. She shares her story, which merges a passion for the environment with her technical background. Dr. Magid also walks us through some of Huston-Tillotson’s major sustainability initiatives, all of which directly engage their students and provide a platform for learning.

The Path to a Sustainability Career

Karen Magid Texas Energy Lab

Karen Magid’s career is rooted in science and engineering. She earned a PhD in materials science and engineering. After a few years working in the lab, she wanted to create more social impact and went to volunteer with the Peace Corps in Mexico. Then she moved to Austin and joined the faculty of Huston-Tillotson, a historically black liberal arts college that is almost 144 years old (the oldest university in Texas). Huston-Tillotson proves their commitment to sustainability by having a dedicated department despite having an enrollment of only 1,100 students.

Moving Towards Environmental Justice

At Huston-Tillotson, Karen oversees several major sustainability initiatives, which combine educational opportunities and operational improvements in a unique way that enables her to engage students:

  • Green is the New Black, an interdisciplinary student group that identifies and takes on projects such as waste and recycling
  • Landscaping projects including an organic vegetable garden, a pocket pollinator garden, a rain garden that prevents runoff erosion and improves irrigation.
  • Bluebonnet Hill native habitat restoration in partnership with Keep Austin Beautiful
  • Building Green Justice Forum, an annual one-day conference celebrating its fifth year this fall
  • Texas Regional Alliance for Campus Sustainability Summit host site in February 2019

Renewable energy is also a key component of the university’s approach to sustainability. Huston-Tillotson hosted its first Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Climate Corps fellow in 2014, who researched the university’s energy footprint because of EDF’s interest in the water-energy nexus. From that work, the board and campus stakeholders approved a proposal for a 240-kilowatt (kW) solar power system that was installed by Freedom Solar in late 2015. You can find a combined 736 SunPower solar panels on the rooftops of the Downs-Jones Library and both residence halls. The system is expected to offset more than 25 percent of the electricity usage for those buildings and offsets as much CO2 annually as planting 262 trees.

Sustainability is becoming more integrated into the curriculum as Huston-Tillotson establishes an Environmental Justice program, one of the only undergraduate programs of its kind in the country. The curriculum is being developed by faculty from all departments and will incorporate history, political science, and natural science.

Environmental justice can be defined as “sharing both the advantages and burdens of the environment equitably across all segments of the population.” Those advantages, which include the growing green economy and going solar, are what really resonate with students. “We know that when the students see directly how something will impact their community, they’re engaged.”

The Intersection of the Environment and a Dumpster

The Dumpster Project is a unique environmental experiment on the Huston-Tillotson campus. Four years ago, a 36-square-foot dumpster was converted into a tiny sustainable home. The professor who conceived of the idea lived in it off and on for a year, and now it’s still used as a living lab for educational purposes. Karen says it is most engaging tool you can imagine to learn about the environment.

It is also a great example of faculty and student engagement and the unique perspective each brings that creates a richer educational experience. Karen recalls that the professors approached the project as scientists working on logistical challenges such as insulation, while the kids were concerned with livability – their first question was about adding a TV. “They want to see it as a living space. We’ve realized that converting it into a house is different than house to home. What makes something a home? The small size really highlights the challenges but make it more fun and engaging.”

Over thirty people have spent from a night to a week to two months living in the dumpster. You can’t rent it on Airbnb (people still ask at every SXSW), but it is a research lab that is available for anyone over age 18 to stay if you’re willing to share your experience.

How You Can Help

Huston-Tillotson is always looking for partners to invest time, talent, and resources into the next generation of sustainability leaders. Student training and career pathways are the most important, and there are also sponsorship opportunities for their events and programs.

If you work in a STEM field, consider becoming a speaker at the Austin Pre-Freshman Engineering Program (AusPREP), a 7-week STEM program for middle schoolers who want to advance in these fields and keep them engaged, especially women. Career Awareness Session 10:30-11:30 every Tuesday this summer where they bring in speakers from as many STEM disciplines as possible.