My Appalachian Vision: Consider the strengths and build on them

Dr. Jamie Russell

As Appalachian State University develops a new five-year strategic plan in the aftermath of the Great Recession, careful consideration of its unique strengths is needed as we plot a course for the future.

Appalachian is a truly comprehensive university offering a diversity of majors. We should remember we are not just consumer-oriented purveyors of siloed knowledge. A rigorous higher education provides an inquiry-based experiential journey through which students develop not only a major discipline but also a robust and extensive worldview; a framework by which to understand our rapidly changing world; and a practiced methodology that allows lifelong learning. As a mechanical engineer in graduate school, one of the most influential courses I took was environmental ethics. I still go back to the textbook when I need to dust off one of the equations from my advanced fluid dynamics class, but the understanding gained from exploring and discussing the theories of Aldo Leopold, Holmes Rolston and J. Baird Callicot with a skilled professor are with me daily.

I was encouraged to take this and other non-major classes by my seasoned graduate faculty advisor. His philosophy on developing a graduate program of study was to create a solid core and then add courses outside the core from the best and brightest in their fields of study. My point is, higher education involves more than a rigorous study of one’s major (particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). A degree is a destination, but the stops along the journey are equally important.

Appalachian has a blended teaching and research agenda with project-based experiential learning, service-learning and global learning opportunities. Hands-on projects such as the Solar Decathlon (one of my personal favorites) provide a huge educational opportunity for students and highlight the university on a global stage. Projects like the Solar Decathlon should continue to be supported and encouraged both on the small and larger scale. With our new Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) based on global learning and the strength of the study abroad courses, this is an obvious strength to retain and build upon.

Appalachian has a strong focus on energy and sustainability in the built environment. Institutes, centers and offices such as the Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics (RIEE), the Energy Center, the Renewable Energy Initiative (REI) and the Office of Sustainability are evidence of this strength. In addition, the university has diverse majors with a central focus on energy and sustainability such as appropriate technology, building science, environmental science, renewable energy engineering, sustainable design and construction, and sustainable development. There are sustainability related majors and programs in Appalachian studies, anthropology, biology, business administration, community and regional planning, economics, geography, geology, interdisciplinary studies, physics, political science, recreation management, and others. This core strength is one that, in my opinion, needs to be formalized and developed.

My vision for the next five years is built upon these strengths. We should continue to promote excellence in a diversity of majors with a general education that allows students to explore this variety. We should continue to enhance our blended teaching and research through project-based learning. Lastly, we should enhance our strengths in energy and sustainability in the built environment and create a central research campus focused on sustainability.