Midwest factory tour brings learning to life for students of environmental policy

Students donned safety gear before touring a steel plant in Iowa as part of a spring-quarter environmental studies class. Photo courtesy of Daniel Press.

Educators who encourage their students to get out of the classroom don't typically direct them to steel mills, glass factories, and soda-pop bottling plants.

But that's exactly what environmental studies professor Daniel Press had in mind when he offered a new senior seminar this spring that included tours of industrial operations in four states. The goal? To learn firsthand about the challenges facing U.S. manufacturing today, including how to reduce energy usage, consumption of raw materials, and pollution while competing in fierce markets with China and other developing nations.

And learn they did.

"It's a whole different level of learning to actually go there and to apply what we'd written about to things we were seeing," said Nicole Nakagawa. "To learn about policy from industry leaders--that's something you can't get out of a book."

Press, chair of the Environmental Studies Department, selected 11 undergraduates for the senior seminar from among the highest-performing students in his National Environmental Policy class, which set the stage for the in-depth exploration of the steel, glass, aluminum, and pulp and paper industries. Students met with plant managers, corporate officials, union representatives, environmental regulators, and others as they explored the forces shaping U.S. industry. Students chose the topics of their term papers, and all agreed that the "field trips" took their understanding to new levels.

"When you sit in class and learn all the acronyms of environmental regulations, it's abstract," said John Prager, who is graduating with a combined major in environmental studies and economics. "But when you go out and see the mills and you see the three-story piece of machinery they installed to comply with air-quality regulations, and you hear that it cost $40 million to implement, well, it brings everything into the real world."

"It changed my view of environmental regulations. It seemed like they had more teeth, actually," added Prager.

In her final paper, Nakagawa analyzed the environmental implications of a new trend: U.S. companies are selling used industrial equipment to developing nations where regulations are less stringent, or perhaps nonexistent. Entire factories are being dismantled, transported, and reassembled overseas. "The biggest buyers are in Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, and Central America, but there's no oversight, so there's no way to track all of it," she said.

For many students, the class broadened their understanding of industry's contributions to environmental stewardship. They were impressed by state-of-the-art operations like a waste-reduction program at a paper-making facility in Wisconsin that transforms waste into a landscaping product while also capturing methane gas that is used to help power the facility.

"That was all completely their idea," noted Nakagawa. "We saw all these great ideas that weren't prompted by the need to comply with regulations. Their main motivation may not be environmental sensitivity, but it saves them a lot of money."

On another visit, a Pepsico manager made a strong case for building a plastics recycling facility in California--a development that would certainly enhance his company's bottom line but would also have enormous environmental benefits because the only recycling facilities now are on the East Coast and in China. "The carbon footprint of all those shipping miles is huge, and who knows what processes are used in China," said Nakagawa.

In her paper, graduating senior Hannah Buoye, who majored in literature and environmental studies, explored the relationship between industry and regulatory agencies. "They work more closely than I thought they did," she said. "Industry is going in the right direction by incorporating environmentalism into their business planning."

"It was amazing to see all the stuff I've read about, and to actually walk on the factory floor and interact with the people at the facility," she said. "It's the experience I've learned the most from, because what I was witnessing was enhanced by everything I've learned during the past four years. I have a whole new perspective. It was like going on a school field trip but ten times better."

Graduating senior Anthony Tomasello, majoring in environmental studies and economics, said the trip opened his eyes, too.

"Before this class, my ideas about manufacturing were skewed, I'd say. You really don't get a full sense of how much these people are trying to work on the environment and reduce pollution until you get out there and see the magnitude of some of these plants," said Tomasello. "You see how complex and intricate it is, and how many factors go into the calculus of trying to do business."

The class made a lasting impression on students on a purely sensory level, as well. Tomasello likened the tour of a steel mill in eastern Iowa to "the last scene of Terminator 2."

"Sparks were flying everywhere, it was dark, there was smoke, and all around were these vats of what looked like molten lava," he recalled. "You get a sense of how big and hot and heavy these things are when you're a little afraid for your safety."

Press, who had dreamed of offering the class for years, wanted to give students a multidimensional understanding of U.S. manufacturing that would help prepare them for the tough decisions they'll confront in the workplace, whether in industry, regulation, government, law, or a related field. A grant from the Henry Luce Foundation made it possible. Students visited factories in Iowa, Indiana, and Wisconsin, as well as Fresno and Hayward.

"This class was the culmination of my entire college career, and it has been great to have Daniel Press as a mentor," said Prager.

Nakagawa, who majored in environmental studies and biology, began working with Press as his research assistant last year. She and Press coauthored a chapter of a forthcoming book about open-space preservation, and she credits him with convincing her to go to graduate school. "He really has a passion to teach students everything he knows," she said. "Of all my professors, he's the most amazing."

For everyone, the trip to the Midwest was the highlight of the class. "Before the trip, I was under the impression that U.S. manufacturing was being outcompeted by China and India, and all the jobs were being outsourced," she said. "It was the most gratifying thing for me to see that American industry is still surviving, it's still thriving."