Posted by: aronchang | December 17, 2008

An Idea – Harvard Inter-School Charettes

After our meeting last night with Heather Henriksen and Ed Forst (we’ll be posting minutes and pictures soon), I’ve spent some time developing one of the ideas that came to mind during the meeting.  Please take a look, write comments, and propose your own ideas.  As we spoke about during the meeting, the Office for Sustainability is looking to leaders such as ourselves to come up with ideas that will make a big difference. 

I would love your feedback on this idea:

I threw out the idea of having something during orientation, which will be easier once all of the schedules are standardized starting next fall.  Having a speaker such as Al Gore or someone of that stature to speak during orientation to address the issue of sustainability would be a great way to start of each year.  I also think that students just coming in are the most impressionable and should be taught habits and patterns of usage which will minimize waste and have a long-term impact on the University’s use of resources.  But rather than having training sessions for behavioral change, I would suggest something that’s not explicitly about sustainability and something much more targeted.

The Harvard Inter-School Charettes –    

Structure:  Interested students (these projects would be optional, and would start as a pilot program for 50-100 students and could expand in later years) would show up a week or two before orientation/school officially starts, having signed up for this “charette” after a summer mailing from Harvard.  The project would be advertised as a way for students to develop skills, become campus leaders, meet and work with older students and students from other schools, and to work with and develop relationships with administration and faculty from around Harvard.  When they arrive, they will have chosen one of the charettes to take part in, and will thus be teamed up with students from other schools and older students leading the charettes and associated faculty and administration members. 

For example, I’m Student X from Los Angeles, and I’m starting at the Graduate School of Design in September and have interests in graphic design and journalism.  I get my mailing, sign up for the Charette on “Updating Media at Harvard: Crimson and Gazette.”  I show up and am grouped with two undergrads, a student from the GSE, a student from the HKS, a student from the GSAS, and a student from the HLS.  All share an interest in journalism and are drawn to the charette because it asks students to take a closer look at the Harvard Gazette’s operations, along with the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Website, and to propose changes in its distribution, coverage, content, and use of available and future technologies.  (Background:  Perhaps the Gazette’s editors see that there is a significant drop in readership, and the rising price of resources has them considering how to optimize their use of paper and the web.  They want some fresh eyes to generate new ideas and locate hidden opportunities)  The charette is led by three older students, one from the GSD, one from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the HLS, and an undergraduate editor of the Crimson.  During the week, the assembled group will meet with staff in the various media outlets for Harvard, meet with public relations officers at various schools, tour the operations and facilities of the periodicals, and then meet to discuss, design, and propose alternative modes of distribution, advertising, and content-production for the Gazette, the Crimson, and the Harvard website.  In an ideal world, the Gazette and the other outlets adopt some of the proposals.   

After taking part in the charette, Student X has helped to generate fresh ideas, made some great connections, and begun to deal with issues of resource management and efficiency in a way that already begins to take into account her personal experiences, preferences, skills, and creativity.  This is just one charette idea, and new ones could arise each year, with ideas developing at each school and in the central administration out of problems and opportunities that have arisen.  For example, the GSD is having some trouble with people dumping trash into the composting bins, which jeopardizes the whole operation and its many benefits.  A charette could be seen as an opportunity for a group of incoming students to meet and work with Rob Gogan, HUDS representatives, tour dining hall facilities, visit composting facilities, and to come up with a concrete plan for revamping the graphics and organization for a more successful implementation of composting AT ALL OF HARVARD’S CAMPUSES, and not just the GSD.  Participants learn about composting, Harvard’s operations, food, marketing, signage and graphic design, psychology, and other related issues. 

These charettes could be coordinated by the Office for Sustainability, in collaboration with student leaders and the individual schools.  The primary goals:

-develop leaders amongst incoming students who are already engaged in the community and University operations before school even starts
-demonstrate the interconnectedness of environmental and non-environmental issues, and the interconnectedness of shcools; show the benefit of working across disciplines
-have incoming students develop long-term relationships with returning students, administration, and faculty — by working with them on a concrete and meaningful project that requires everyone’s input
-expose incoming students to some of the many resources that are available across campus, in terms of research and people
-encourage innovation in thinking – new students bring fresh eyes and new ideas which can help solve problems on campus and in the surrounding community
-allow students to begin to develop research skills, communications skills, leadership skills, and all of this in a non-academic context where there is no pressure in terms of grades and their attention is not yet divided amongst classes, sports, and other activities
-show incoming students that they can contribute valuable ideas and make great things happen




  1. Aron, a VERY cool idea. Thanks for posting. I love the idea of cross-school collaboration given the new calendar, and I also love the idea of posing these problems while appealing to folks with a variety of interests, not just environment/sustainability issues.

    That being said, here’s the stumbling block that we’d have to think about very closely. Harvard is a notoriously difficult place to navigate; it took me about a year working with the Resource Efficiency Program and the Environmental Action Committee to have a sense of who to talk to about pulling which levers. Even now I find that the administrative landscape is always changing and takes a great deal of persistence to cultivate the relationships necessary to effect change (or ask for favors). You suggest having more experienced individuals leading these groups, and this is an important idea. Further you mention the beauty of lending new eyes to an old problem, and here I agree with you … to a point. I worry that students coming in just don’t know enough about how the system works to be able to suggest practicable solutions. Admittedly, students coming to Harvard bring a very unique skill set (we’re the best and the brightest! or so my admission letter told me) and so I think we/whoever runs this program must be very discerning in what sorts of charette topics they offer.

    One other point: the existing orientation programs at the undergraduate level are very much self-contained. The Freshman Arts Program, for example, works towards a final performance/exhibition display at the end of their week together, and then the program is done. This, on the other hand, would benefit most from follow-up and follow-through once the year is in full swing. I’d hope that students would take such ownership of their proposals that they’ll try to implement some of the suggestions, but this isn’t a guarantee. I would seem a shame to generate all sorts of great ideas without any “final hurrah” so-to-speak. I’d suggest that some sort of final presentation be organized at the end of the program so groups feel like they have something concrete they are working towards, and a desire to impress.

    All that being said, I think this is a very intriguing idea, one with the potential of empowering students to serve as real change-makers and, further, fostering real cultural change here on campus. Too much of our Harvard experience (in my view) is spent reinforcing the idea that we are “just” students and so don’t possess the skills to actually do anything. This is all wrong. I’m especially inspired by such models as MIT’s Media Lab ( and UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas ( Cool stuff. Let’s keep talking about this, and I’d encourage others to join the conversation! Time to start drafting a proposal…

  2. I’m glad that we are starting a bit of brainstorming on this issue, because it seems that students from across schools are coming to the same conclusion – that some orientation program regarding environmental work on campus should be implemented such that students coming to campus begin their career here with an environmental mindset, whatever that may be. Aaron, I also love your idea about the charettes (although I’ll admit that I had to wikipedia “charette” in order to know quite what you were talking about) but agree with Spring that there would be some large stumbling blocks.

    I think it is important to first delineate what we think the primary goals of this orientation program are, so here’s what I would say: (1) Expose incoming students to the importance of sustainability at Harvard, (2) Allow students to take concrete, effective actions during the program, not just listen to speakers, go to events, etc., (3) Connect incoming students to the current environmental community on campus (students, faculty and staff), and (4) Collaborate between schools for greater effectiveness. (As a side note, I do think that goal (4) is pretty subsidiary compared the rest, and should not be a primary motivator to begin with because it may initially cause more confusion and logistical headaches than it is worth, but should be kept in mind as we go forward.) I’m sure that I am missing some big goals here, but these are just my preliminary thoughts.

    So the bigger and harder question is how to accomplish those goals. No matter what, the program has to include an introduction to navigating Harvard’s sustainability scene because without that understanding it’s hard to know who to talk to about what, what’s already being done, and what can be done. We don’t want to indoctrinate with our current philosophy about the direction Harvard should go because, otherwise, what’s the point of new student minds, but a basic outline of the system that we are dealing with is important. Regarding the actions that the students would take, I’m thinking a combination of Aaron’s charettes, an ESPP 10 project and an eco-project. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see the note at the bottom of this comment.) I don’t think it’s feasible to tackle huge things like newspaper distribution on campus (speaking as someone who tried to tackle the issue last year and was far from successful) because the project cannot be accomplished in a week or two, and that experience may be more disempowering than empowering. However, something like touring a dining hall kitchen with someone from the Office of Sustainability and then working on a report about how to implement energy saving techniques in that space may be more feasible. I’m clearly thinking more from the undergrad perspective, but I’m sure smaller projects could be proposed across campus.

    To conclude this long comment, one of the most important effects of this program MUST be that students want to continue working in the environmental movement on campus. Therefore, we must empower them to feel that they can make a difference while they are on campus – which they definitely can, and it is a great experience, but not always easy. By introducing them to the community and allowing successful completion of a small project, they can both make a difference during orientation and continue to make a difference if they continue with the community.

    Note: ESPP 10 is the intro environmental science and public policy class that I have not actually taken, but based on hearsay from my friends that have, the class is based around researching current environmental issues on campus and developing policies about how to address them most effectively. A recent project was based around sustainability in the dining services. Eco-projects are projects done by undergraduates in the houses that somehow relate to sustainability – some examples are mug painting study breaks to encourage reusable mug use, dishware collection drives to reclaim ceramic dishware that students hoard in their rooms over time, sustainable food educational events, etc.

  3. […] “Jan-Term” classes and programs for students interested in implementation. (perhaps like Aron’s “Interschool Charettes idea?”) […]

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