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Free online course offers an entrée into sustainable design

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Photograph Courtesy of Jefferson Alum Keagan Caldwell, now of Seattle based firm ArchEcology, was part of the Skagit County, WA,  YMCA project that opened in 2019.

Photograph Courtesy of Jefferson Alum Keagan Caldwell, now of Seattle based firm ArchEcology, was part of the Skagit County, WA, YMCA project that opened in 2019.

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We’re not hardwired for sustainability,” says Rob Fleming, director of the Sustainable Design Program and associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University. “We’re hardwired to get food, now!”

Fleming is one of the true pioneers of higher education’s sustainability movement. He began teaching full time in 1996 at Jefferson, where he developed the undergraduate sustainable design studio, one of the first in the U.S., which ran until 2007. Later that year, he co-founded the award-winning Master of Science in Sustainable Design and assumed the position of program director.

On Monday, June 1, Fleming will be conducting a free 15-week online course called Principles and Methods for Sustainable Design, offered by The College of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). This course is open to anyone interested in pursuing a graduate degree. 

Like any good designer, he’s keenly interested in human behavior and motivations. He relishes posing provocative and challenging questions, and then digging deep with the students to search for the answers. For example, just how do we get beyond our biological impulses to feed ourselves so that we can focus on the future? 

Fleming sees the key to our progress—and ultimately our survival as a species—is the cultivation of four specific types of empathy.

The first type of empathy he calls “empathy across time.” He asks, “How do you care about people that haven’t been born yet?”

The second empathy is “empathy across space.” Fleming continues, “How do you care about people that don’t live near you? For example, many villages near the North Pole are sinking.

Who cares?”

Third is “empathy across difference.” “We are hardwired for bias,” says Fleming. “It’s built into us to fear others that are different from us, even the slightest difference. And we know empirically that if you’re in a discriminatory environment, you can’t perform to your highest level. So we need to learn how to work past those primal impulses.”

Finally, there is “empathy across species.” Fleming says, “We only care about species that are attractive to us. But we kill everything else, right?”

It’s this holistic view of the world and focus on sustainability that caught the eye of Washington state native Keaghan Caldwell.


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“It was really difficult finding a program in which sustainability was the focus and architecture was the lens through which it was studied. A lot of the time you find architecture programs that state they are sustainably minded, but after you evaluate their curriculum, [you discover] they only offer a few credits in those topics. Jefferson’s program drew my attention because the curriculum looked like it was different.”

While his curiosity was piqued by what he read, it wasn’t until he took Principles and Methods for Sustainable Design online that he was ready to commit to the program.

“While I felt like the program might have been a good fit, graduate school is expensive and it meant moving my family across the country. The online class allowed me to test the curriculum, interact with Rob and ultimately make the decision to attend school in Philadelphia.”

Caldwell has always been interested in buildings, but as an undergrad he earned a degree in environmental science. Despite the unrelated education, he pursued the building track within Master of Science in Sustainable Design. He graduated in 2019 and is currently working for ArchEcology, a green building design firm in Seattle. He is a LEED Green Associate and is also working on his AP certification.

“I did a little bit of architecture in my undergrad, but I didn’t have the technical background. It just goes to show that you don’t necessarily have to be an architectural student if this is something that you’re interested in.”

He credits Fleming for helping him find the right path.

“He’s really inspirational as far as driving you to take your interests and figure out how they fit into the greater puzzle.”

The mission of  Jefferson’s College of Architecture and the Built Environment is to educate the next generation of design and construction professionals to create an equitable and sustainable future. Learn more at Jefferson.edu/Grid.

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