John Motloch, professor of landscape architecture and director of the Land Design Institute, has a world view of his profession, and he is providing opportunities for his students to gain the same perspective—quite literally.

John Motloch shares his passion for sustainable development with his students.

Motloch’s program area—creating and maintaining a sustainable future and dignified housing for all—is one that relates to all cultures and countries, and in his studies, he has developed an impressive international network of colleagues and institutions who share his passion for sustainable development.

His collaborative activities began in early 2002 when he established the U.S.-Brazil Sustainability Consortium to explore sustainable communities and ecologically balanced initiatives in the two countries. A follow-on four-year project from 2004–08, supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE), enabled Motloch to continue his collaborative activities and included opportunities for student exchanges and multilateral curricular development.

Providing opportunities for students to study sustainability issues firsthand in another country was a key aspect to the project. “Developing the understanding of universities in the future and of regional challenges is important,” says Motloch. “Students will need to know how to work with these changes.”

Student Exchange Offers Global Context

The exchange program—led by Ball State and including the University of Texas at Austin, McGill University in Montreal, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, among others—gave 20 students from each country the opportunity to experience a strong professional-degree curriculum and learn about the challenges of the built and natural environments in an applied, interdisciplinary, global context.

Ball State students participating in the exchange received funding for transportation and housing to spend one semester in Brazil. They prepared for their experience by studying a year of Portuguese. Later, they embedded themselves in the culture by living with Brazilian students or families and taking a full load of college courses, all taught in Portuguese.

In the international exchange program, students study in Brazil, which helps them develop a broader awareness of the social and economic factors related to sustainability.

By immersing themselves in the culture, students were able to open themselves up to different realities and sensibilities that they otherwise would have never been exposed to. “We take students with an excellent education from our home institutions and put them into a different context. Then, they layer a broader awareness on their understanding by living in a completely different culture,” says Motloch.

Addressing Future Challenges

The most recent FIPSE award, U.S.-Brazil Universities of the Future Consortium, builds on the earlier well-established programs. The four-year project (2008–12) addresses challenges of how to intervene in systems, including planning, designing, and managing local and global economic and community development, so as to produce a world that is ecologically, socially, and economically healthy. U.S. consortium partners include Texas A&M University and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a nonprofit organization; Brazilian collaborating partners are the University of Brasilia and the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul. The program addresses sustainability in developing regions by being conscious of social and economic factors.

The Triple Bottom Line

As described by Motloch, promoting a more sustainable world in developing areas means pursuing a balance of “the triple bottom line”—being environmentally responsible, socially just, and economically viable. Students who have successfully completed the exchange will have come to grips with the challenges of maintaining that balance.

When participating students enter the workforce, they have a better perspective of sustainability in urban planning and architecture.

Sarah Vessel, a recent participant in the exchange says, “This experience proved to be incredibly valuable to me. Not only did I discover how cultural diversity relates to the interpretation of sustainable values, but I also learned to speak Portuguese, to communicate within a different social framework, and to identify universal elements of humanity that cross cultural boundaries.”

When students who have participated in the program enter the workforce, they are able to keep a different perspective in mind. Many of the developments in the U.S. have an impact on other countries. Having a firsthand experience living and working toward sustainability in another culture gives students a unique perspective for helping those beyond their own communities.