We’ll start with thermostats

Each fall since 2005, students enrolled in the University of Utah’s Honors College have had the opportunity to apply for a Praxis Lab. This unique community engaged learning experience draws students from all disciplines to collaborate on innovative, project-based solutions to pressing societal challenges.

Topics vary each year but generally fall into three themes: health, energy/environment and human rights/social justice. For the 2019-20 school year, the four Praxis Labs include:

Jeffrey McCarthy, director of the environmental humanities graduate program, is one of two faculty members guiding students through the Anthropocene Now Praxis Lab on climate change. The lab is possible because of a partnership with the Kem Gardner Policy Institute, Salt Lake City Corporation and the Honors College. McCarthy’s co-instructor for the lab is Courtenay Strong, an atmospheric sciences professor.

“Courtenay’s work is about weather and climate modeling,” said McCarthy. “He’s a very accomplished scientist, while my work is more about the cultural impacts of the changing climate and the ways in which Western culture has related to nature historically and presently.”

Strong and McCarthy combined their expertise to select a topic, and then chose 12 applicants from a diverse range of majors to participate in the lab.

“The fall semester we asked them to read and study broadly about what climate change is, what international scientific bodies have been saying about our changing climate, about the science of global warming and about the cultural impacts of global warming,” said McCarthy.

The students ultimately came up with four different possible projects that they would like to work on during the spring semester. After a series of presentations, complete with impact feasibility analyses and a few rounds of voting, the students decided they wanted to help the U in its effort to hit carbon neutrality by 2050.

“The students decided they wanted to make it clear to the world that climate change is an important issue for them,” said McCarthy. “They want to help the U in its ongoing efforts and even accelerate that, so what they want to do is work toward upgrading thermostats on campus. They also want to inform other students, staff and faculty about how the thermostats in their buildings can work better.”

McCarthy said the idea behind a Praxis Lab is that it allows students to connect ideas that students have learned in the classroom with their direct application to the world around them.

“I’m really proud of them because what they’ve done is to identify a concrete act that is achievable in one semester and that is a possible bridge toward bigger conversations,” said McCarthy. “By starting with something as mundane as a thermostat, they’re able to build a compelling case about the broader issues.”

The Praxis Lab classes meet once a week for three hours. Students receive a $1,000 scholarship for participating and must be at least a sophomore to be considered. Applications for the upcoming academic year are typically due between March and April.