UB faculty and alumni to speak at TEDxBuffalo 2017

Twitter screenshot of Prof. Atkinson's 447 Challenge

By Peter Murphy

Published October 25, 2017

John Atkinson, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering, is a speaker at this year’s TEDxBuffalo event. Seven of the nine participating speakers have a connection to UB.

“If you try these things, it’s not going to be as bad as you’ve been led to think, but you have to be motivated This is where it starts, and I'm happy to lead the charge.”
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

The event takes place from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm, on Thursday, October 26, in Asbury Hall at 341 Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo, NY.

Sustainability Forward, Atkinson’s talk focuses on how individuals can lead the sustainable lifestyles he believes they desire. The talk builds off a project Atkinson started two years ago in his sustainability course, CIE 447. In this junior and senior level class, he found many students were not living as sustainably at they thought.

“I asked students what they were doing to practice sustainability. These students are environmental engineers-to-be, but I heard a lot of comments about light bulbs and grocery bags,” he says, “changing your light bulbs to LEDs is great, but the impact is negligible compared to what we could be doing.” The students thought they were living great examples of sustainability, however, their answers demonstrated a fundamental education problem. “Even students committed to improving the environment are not clear on what it means to be sustainable."

The gap between what people think it means to be sustainable, and what it actually means, inspired Atkinson to develop a Twitter-based experiential learning project, the #447challenge.

“Every week, I challenge students to live a piece of what might be required to have an actual impact, and they tweet about their participation,” Atkinson says. He may ask students to go vegetarian or take public transportation for a week, and they share their experience using #447challenge. The project is optional, but over 90% of his students participated last year. The challenge generated over 650 tweets in the past two years.

Atkinson recently described the interactive project at the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s annual conference he attended with colleagues from UB’s Sustainability office. He uses Twitter for the project, because the platform is public. “In many ways, the students become the sustainability educators. The audience and educational impact grow,” he says.

His goal with the CIE 447 course and project is to provide an updated perspective on problem solving. “As engineers, we’re taught to optimize single variables, ‘maximize removal efficiency, or ‘minimize cost.’ Sustainability requires a more well-rounded mindset,” he says, “it can be about improving the environment while saving money, but also about making your community a more welcoming place at personal expense. Our engineers need to consider every aspect of sustainability: environment, society and economy.”

During his TEDx talk, Atkinson will ask local and virtual audiences to incorporate sustainability into their lives. During the inaugural #447challenge, Atkinson challenged himself and students to go one week without eating meat. This would be the first time abstaining from meat for Atkinson, and he knew it would be tough. One meatless week turned into a month, and a semester, and eventually, he went two years without consuming meat. “If you try these things, it’s not going to be as bad as you’ve been led to think, but you have to be motivated,” he says. “That’s what I’m hoping comes out of this; people say ‘yeah, I’ll try 10 things, and maybe two of them stick.’ This is where it starts, and I’m happy to lead the charge.”

About TEDxBuffalo

TEDx is a series of local, self-organized events that bring people together for a TED-like experience.

UB has an abundant presence at this event. In addition to Atkinson, professors and instructors from the College of Arts and Sciences, and alumni from the School of Management, School of Architecture and Planning, and College of Arts and Sciences are all speakers for the event.

To learn more information about the TEDxBuffalo event, and to check out the other UB-affiliated speakers, follow this link.