The Substance of Sustainability: Sara Sample's Semester in France

March 28, 2014

Sara Sample, '15, spent the Fall 2013 semester at The International Centre for Research in Ecological Economics, Eco-Innovation and Tool Development for Sustainability (REEDS) in Rambouillet, France. REEDS is part of the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ), Albion's partner in offering a sustainability studies degree that includes coursework and research on both campuses.

Sara Sample, '15
"There are a lot of options to think about," says Sample about a career path with degrees in sustainability studies and French. Sample, a member of the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program, is the daughter of Todd and Heather Sample of Sterling Heights, Mich., and a graduate of Henry Ford II High School.

One important lesson Sara Sample, '15, learned in France was the importance of history to 21st-century sustainability. As part of her studies in France, Sample visited the Bergerie Nationale, a historic sheepfold created at the request of Louis XVI and now an experimental farm owned by UVSQ. "We went out with landscape scientists to look at the landscapes and guess why things were where they were," Sample recalled. "For instance, we looked at an old hunting ground that had high hedges and saw that the hedges were there because of the pheasant hunting that used to go on in these places."

Sample also learned to monitor pest control with a simple wooden board. "You can place wooden boards in the ground, and then see what insects are underneath," she said. "You can estimate the biodiversity by the different creatures that are under the board. Then you can plant a certain crop to attract or repel certain insects."

While the experimental farm is a great place for students to observe the practice of agro-ecology, high-tech tools are also part of the program. Several REEDS faculty have developed or co-developed software that allows students to model farm operations on a "deliberation matrix," a data-driven program used to determine the costs of different practices. Sample used deliberation matrix software to compare the efficiency and environmental impact of two different waste management programs.

"I compared a traditional waste management company and a company that had employees pick through the trash and remove recyclables," said Sample. "With the deliberation matrix, I looked at costs, funding, value creation and efficiency, among other factors. I was able to demonstrate certain options that were better for certain stakeholders based on these factors."

Sample explained that this type of analysis will become increasingly important as sustainable and organic concerns impact farmers, vendors, corporations and consumers. "You don't want to say there's a 'best' option, because that varies depending on who you're talking to," Sample explained. "But you can come up with an option that's favorable to addressing what you're most concerned with."

A classroom building at the REEDS Center
The Bergerie Nationale in Rambouillet served as a setting for some of Sample's work.

In addition to sustainability, Sample also worked on her French major, with lots of applied learning. "People outside of Paris speak little or no English. It was initially very difficult to do daily things such as go to the bank," said Sample. "I also made friends with other students from all over the world. I loved having classes in French with French students."

Back at Albion, Sample plans to apply some of what she learned to her involvement with the Albion College Student Farm. "I think the important lesson I'm bringing back is that you have to look at problems from different points of view," she said. "A goal of the Student Farm is raising organic food, but meeting organic standards may not be sustainable for us. I have better tools now to help us determine good ways to meet our goals."

The semester at UVSQ also gave Sample some food for thought for her future. "There are graduate students in the [UVSQ] sustainability studies program who are training to be knowledge mediators, using the deliberation matrix. I'm not sure that's what I want to do, but that's something I could do with this degree. There are a lot of options to think about."