Driving Sustainable Solutions: Inside SMU Lyle's Inspiring Sustainability + Development Program
For the past decade, SMU Lyle’s unique sustainability program has taken a multidisciplinary, hands-on approach to building self-sustainable communities.
Inside Jessie Zarazaga’s classroom at SMU Lyle, nearly half the students lack an engineering background. Instead, they represent a wide variety of disciplines – from design and city planning to landscape architecture, urbanism, government, education, geography, earth science, and social science.
Each of those backgrounds brings a different set of expertise,” she said. “What's really fun about teaching in the program is that we get brilliant young professionals from all different areas who come in ready to collaborate and work on ways to really implement sustainable solutions in communities.”
Zarazaga, program director of the SMU Master's in Sustainability + Development Program (SDP) at Lyle and a trained architect, has developed a unique offering among universities worldwide. Her multidisciplinary program opens up a world of possibilities for graduate students from diverse professions and life experiences to make a difference in communities across the globe – from neighborhoods in Dallas to small villages in Africa.
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There are very few such programs in sustainability based in a school of engineering,” she said. “Most sustainability programs are focused on public policy or government, sustainable agriculture or anthropology. Those programs tend to talk a lot about the theoretical aspects. What I love about this program is that it’s really hands on. We don’t talk about sustainability; we develop ways to make processes that are being done in cities and in rural contexts actively more sustainable.”
A hands-on approach
George Opudo, a graduate student in SMU Lyle’s sustainability program, dreams of helping young people in his home country of Kenya gain access to the same opportunities and scholarships that allowed him to study in the United States. He formed a non-profit organization to purchase property for a school, finance a water well, and develop a future community center.
"My strength is connecting people and things,” he said. “I started Sustainable Nomads non-profit to help change the global narrative from poverty to opportunity. My vision is to build self-sustaining communities that raise standards of living in areas of need around the globe.”
Returning to Kenya last year, he realized the circumstances there would require more knowledge about sustainability. He enrolled in the Sustainability + Development Program to gain hands-on experience testing and implementing sustainable solutions in collaboration with local populations.
The reality is that many sustainable solutions exist in Africa already, but the ideas aren’t making their way to most small rural settings,” Zarazaga said. “One of the goals of the program is to take ideas that already exist that aren’t being taught, find a way to test them, and implement them if they are proven to help create better community outcomes and livelihoods.”
Students who enter the program encounter a flexible curriculum that allows them to discover their individual passions along the way while taking a small number of required courses that will help them address the global, city, and human scales when creating sustainable solutions. Students then develop their individual capstone projects, which must fulfill three requirements: 1) Incorporate serious academic research, 2) Be a community-based project, and 3) Have a measurable outcome.
Over the years, what we’ve discovered is that students who come to a program like this don’t need a discussion-based program,” Zarazaga said. “What they really want are skills and deep knowledge. Every single course is project-based and community-based, so students get involved with research and project development, which is important for making future work connections.”
These in-depth capstone projects are being taken directly into the communities they are designed to serve and tested on the ground. Recent class trips to Tanzania, with the integral support of Clara Rulegura Ford, Sr. Associate Examiner at Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and herself a graduate of the Sustainability + Development Program and founder of Kijiji Innovative Sustainable Solutions (K.I.S.S.), have given students the chance to test out a range of solutions that include water filtration, soil testing, low-cost surveying, financial access, roofing materials, and small-scale internet systems.
Zarazaga’s role has been to support the students as they implement their work in the field while challenging them to see the project through the eyes of the beneficiaries, whose access to resources is substantially limited compared to a group of university students who have just flown in from the United States.
"One of my main jobs with each of the student teams was to keep pushing the pause and saying, ‘Hold on a minute, have you collected data on that? Have you figured out the impact of each of the steps?’ People would come and say, ‘We need another 20,000 Tanzanian shillings [about $8.15] so we can buy this piece,’ and I would say, ‘Is that available locally? We can buy it and fix it right now, but we need to be developing a solution which is able to be repeated.’ It’s more important teaching the process than actually finishing.”
At the forefront of sustainability programs
Other universities are seeing the need for sustainability programs as more employers are requiring the knowledge, Zarazaga said. While new programs have been developed at Stanford, Columbia, and the University of Texas, Lyle has been succeeding for the past decade. Last year, Zarazaga earned the 2022 Tech Titan Award for the program’s work and its student-driven results.
"Lots of schools have started having sustainability programs, but SMU has been on the forefront of this,” she said.
Working across the boundaries of urbanism, landscape mapping and public engagement, Zarazaga explores ways to connect culture and community to place. She studied architecture and design at Cambridge and Harvard, which then led her into her own architectural practice that took on a global footprint and set her up for a future role as a program director at SMU Lyle.
“I was very aware, even as a young architectural student, of the need for architecture to be impactful for communities in settings of real need,” she said. “I was employed to work on a community conservation and development project for Stone Town in Zanzibar, and I think a lot of my future direction came from that because I was applying architectural thinking at an urban scale and thinking about how people inhabit space and how the space makes the way that you live in it harder or easier.”
As a trained architect leading a program in an engineering school like SMU Lyle, she feels more strongly than ever the responsibility of making good design decisions about cities and imparting those lessons to the next generation of infrastructure designers, which often includes collaborating with engineers. “If those decisions are not made thinking about community and climate and impact of topography and site, then it’s really hard to go back and fix it afterwards,” she said.
Graduates of the Lyle Sustainability + Development Program have gone on to work for nonprofit organizations in North Texas, taken high-level positions in the field of sustainable transportation in cities like New York, joined the sustainability team at the American Institute of Architects’ national offices, and pursued research and education through higher degrees in a plethora of specialties.
“At least two-thirds of the students are already in their career paths when they come to the program,” Zarazaga said. “It’s a highly sought-after degree by mid-career professionals who are already trying to bring sustainable aspects to their job.”
For graduate student Tania Caldua Cuff, the program also provided an opportunity to find mentors invested in her academic success and future career.
“They have ignited my love for data science; inspired me to develop a world view of sustainability while prioritizing a climate-smart, inclusive economic development applicable to any industry and any country; and instilled in me the importance of having a holistic view when approaching the most challenging problems in our society,” she said.
About the Bobby B. Lyle School of Engineering
SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, founded in 1925, is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest. The school offers twelve undergraduate and 29 graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees, in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Computer Science; Electrical and Computer Engineering; Mechanical Engineering and Operations Research and Engineering Management.
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.