Living campus reduces stress, engages students and creates powerful teaching moments
On Sept. 13, 2006, a shooter fired on students at Dawson College in Montreal, killing 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa and wounding 16 others by gunshot before turning the gun on himself. Many more students were deeply traumatized: a study by the McGill University Health Centre Research Institute later determined that Dawson students enrolled at the time of the incident were twice as likely as those in the general population to suffer from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, alcohol dependence and social phobia.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, one of the ways that Dawson College worked to heal the trauma in its community was by building an Ecological Peace Garden to provide a quiet, stress-free place to walk between classes. The process inspired the college to fully embrace education for sustainability as well as the concepts of a “living campus” in which to teach and live the values of non-violence as well as creative and critical engagement through project-based learning.
“There is so much research that looks at the restorative properties of nature,” says Chris Adam, the co-director of Dawson’s Sustainability Project. “Simply bringing plants into a classroom, for example, brings stress levels down by up to 15 per cent.”
The living campus includes landscaping plans for the college rooftops such as biodiversity zones above the gym. “We’re trying to invite biodiversity back into a downtown setting. We’ve had a duck nest here four times, a great sign that something’s working,” he says.
While reducing stress, the living campus lets students explore and use their creativity and imagination.
It also brings the students closer to their food, agriculture and the realities of climate change, he notes. “We just released a monarch butterfly in our peace garden. Some of the flowers we planted there 10 years ago should be blooming, but they’ve finished and are in seed. We talk about what happens when we have a very warm summer and the butterflies are coming out at the same time. It’s these local and nature-based connections to complex environmental issues that are important.”
Working together with nature also builds community, he explains. “Although one person watched the caterpillar eat and form a chrysalis, when we let it go, there was a whole team of people there – staff, faculty and students. They all lose their labels and titles and become people who are thrilled that they’ve helped this butterfly on its way to Mexico. It was a powerful moment.”
Faculty and students at Dawson College report that the living campus “gives them hope,” says Mr. Adam. “You don’t have courses in hope, but it is such a big part of who we are. It motivates us to further learning and to transfer what it is we’re learning in school into action.”
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