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New Environmental Sciences Course Promotes Student Eco-Entrepreneurship

Written by Dr. Eli Typhina and Jena Keesee

A new elective in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State has helped recent graduate Jena Keesee learn eco-entrepreneurship skills and how to apply behavior change theories. A spring 2020 graduate from the College of Engineering with a degree in Materials Science & Engineering, Keesee was awarded the University Honors Program Richard L. Blanton Outstanding Capstone Award for her project in Special Topics in Environmental Sciences: Environmental Behavior Change (ES 495 for undergraduates, NR 595 for graduate students).

Environmental Behavior Change, taught by Dr. Eli Typhina, Instructor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, allows students to choose an environmental issue and develop an innovation for altering human behavior related to that issue. Students develop their innovations by combining behavior change theories, data-collection, stakeholder-led prototyping, and business skills. The course attracts juniors, seniors, and graduate students from a range of disciplines including biological sciences, business, communication, design, economics, engineering, and environmental sciences.

“I want students to walk away from this course with the confidence that they can be eco-entrepreneurs in any discipline and any sector,” explained Typhina. “They leave the course with the ability to reach out to potential partners, empirically analyze challenges and opportunities, and develop a financially viable and user-friendly innovation.”

A recent NC State graduate herself, Typhina developed the course by merging her dissertation research on environmental behavior change with her experiences as an environmental practitioner, entrepreneur, and new graduate in the current economy.

“I designed the assignments so that students can develop their professional network, resume, and, if they choose to, develop their innovation into a business,” Typhina said. Since the final assignment is designed as a funding proposal, students can use it to apply for funding from a multitude of sources, including NC State’s competitions, crowdfunding sites, and grants.

Typhina nominated Keesee’s work for the award because it showed creativity, analytical rigor, and command of academic theories. The Capstone Award committee selected Keesee’s project for the same reasons, adding, “This was a model capstone project, as it addressed an important problem and offered effective ways to address it.”

Screenshot of Jena Keesee’s prototype Deliberate Disposal online course, which covers the topics of how to improve sorting accuracy through lessons on researching patron behavior, bin and sign location and design, and educational interventions.

For her project, Keesee interviewed and observed 80 stakeholders and reviewed over 30 articles to develop her prototype innovation, an online course called “Deliberate Disposal.” Her prototype included templates, resources, and training that would enable university dining hall staff to optimize waste sorting. With waste going into the proper bins, less waste would go to landfills (that cause greenhouse gases and pollutants), and more waste would be recycled and composted.

Keesee explained that the environmental behavior change course emphasized conducting diverse preliminary research that gave her the foresight to propose an effective innovation with financial viability. Keesee explained that Typhina’s Actor Diagramming and Tracing Method afforded her and her classmates a way to visually map and engage with the people, organizations, and things involved with and impacted by an environmental problem.

“Although this style of brainstorming was new to me, it proved useful to understanding how people, things, and organizations influenced another and which ones I should concentrate on during product development. I anticipate using Dr. Typhina’s method in my future jobs to ensure we include all stakeholders and pieces that we might otherwise miss,” Keesee said.

Keesee also explained how the course’s Innovation Funding Proposal assignment helped her see beyond what engineers, like herself, are typically trained to focus on – the technical side of product development. The assignment included user personas, storyboarding, and product financials, such as production costs, potential revenue, and options for start-up capital.

“By working through the whole product development process, from research to prototyping to marketing, I learned the importance of coupling entrepreneurial skills with my engineering background. The behavior change theories in the course gave me insights into how I can influence human behavior through the product I create. Dr. Typhina’s course showed me the innovation process for environmental behavior change encompasses more than manufacturing, including how people, finances, and design play into the product,” Keesee said.

Keesee added, “Normally the roles of designing, manufacturing, and selling a product are divided between specialists; however, with the unique opportunity from this class to dive into each position, I am hoping it will help me collaborate with these specialists to improve the overall quality, usability, and marketability of a product.” In the coming months, Keesee hopes to secure a position that blends her passion for environmental sustainability and knowledge of engineering.

Typhina continues to develop pedagogy and insights for an ecopreneur mindset. Besides her advanced environmental behavior change course, Typhina also integrated ecopreneurship pedagogy into her introductory environmental science course, Applications of Environmental Science (ES111). She continues to develop the pedagogy through collaborations with industry partners and faculty across the university, including those in the Business Sustainability Collaborative and the Social Innovation Fellows program.

“I hope my courses enable students to move beyond data collection and interpretation,” Typhina said, “to a point where they can propose solutions that are financially viable and that effectively address environmental problems by altering the human behavior that causes them.”

Article originally posted on the Forestry and Environmental Resources Department News.