Why STEM is vital to Social Justice and Sustainability

With Cierra Snyder

Sustainability isn’t only about saving the environment; it’s about balancing the needs of people with the economy and the environment. As sustainability majors, we talk a lot about social justice, community development, and the relationship we have with our environment. While most of us want to be involved in causes that help make the world a better place, it can be difficult to do so while also being a responsible student.

Cierra Snyder handles this phenomenon well. As a second-year sustainability major, she expertly balances classes, work, and extra circulars, with advocating social justice and environmental protection. I asked her one day while we went for a run at the Eden Hall campus about how she is able to make time for being an active citizen in addition to all her other commitments.

“It’s all about priorities. I try to make the best of my situation, and do my best to narrow down what I want to strive for. Before this major, I had a strong urge to help with all these different causes, and yet I still didn’t know what I could do to actually make a difference. My eyes have definitely been open to how we can go about impacting the cause, and I feel more optimistic.” -Cierra
Cierra and Molly (an Interior Architecture Major at Chatham) collect and care for various native plants throughout the school year.

There are entire classes within the sustainability program devoted to social justice, transition management, leadership transitions, sustainable economics and system dynamics which are all focused on how to find solutions to the world’s problems. Taking classes that teach you how to take actionable steps on systemic issues helps to define realistic goals and conquer fear.

When an overwhelming problem is broken down into smaller parts, individuals can then use their talents to make progress in solving it. Our classes teach mostly about systems, why they work or don’t work, and what we can do to fix it. Classes can also talk about leadership skills, group dynamics, and how to turn a vision into goals. Cierra considered being a business major, though she chose sustainability because it gave her more background in science AND action-oriented solutions. It is through her scientific background that she hopes to continue advocating for environmentalism and social justice.

Prioritize What You Value

Social justice and environmentalism may seem like specific niches at first. Yet, they can be found in almost every corner of society and trying to tackle it all can seem be overwhelming. To combat this, Cierra focuses her studies primarily on ecology and biology in order to relate it to how they can positively impact social and environmental causes. By focusing on the science, opportunities for internships and post-graduate positions are within her reach.

“I focus on only a few social issues at a time that really matter to me. Prioritizing and embracing incrementalism helps me to contribute even with all my other responsibilities.” -Cierra
Cierra and Nikki (also a Chatham Student) at a demonstration in Washington DC

As a sophomore, Cierra has been making a positive impact on campus as well as her studies. Her first year, she helped start the Net Impact Team at Chatham which focuses primarily on social justice related to the greater Pittsburgh Area. She has also been to several demonstrations and peaceful marches for environmental protection and human rights. She traveled to Washington DC as part of a demonstration for environmental protection in the spring of her first year.

This year, she has been heavily involved in the ecology research on campus, attending conferences, writing publishable research papers, and assisting graduate students with their research projects. For a student in her second year, this type of experience has been exceptional for Cierra. She mentioned how she probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to conduct this kind of research so early in her college career if she didn’t join the sustainability program.

Make Connections Between Ideas

Cierra spends a lot of time at the Eden Hall Campus: a campus located on 300 acres of forests and farmlands north of the city of Pittsburgh. Several different research projects are going on at any given time on campus, related to ecology, fermenting, bee keeping, sap collecting, insect studies, plant identification, soil and stream monitoring, agriculture and food studies, to name a few.

Cierra with other classmates at the Rachel Carson Homestead as a field trip with one of our social justice classes. We talked a lot about air pollution and park systems.

We agree that one of the best parts of the program is the inter-connectedness between topics, even if it might not seem that way at first. Ecological data collected over time using various methods like stream monitoring help to better determine the future impacts of climate change. These impacts are a major concern for preserving the environment, as well as advocating social justice for marginalized groups across the world.

Meanwhile, sap collecting and bee keeping projects on campus are a more fun way to explore how to learn and teach skills that lead to more sustainable food production. In turn, these programs can help bring social justice to marginalized groups through increased knowledge, empowerment and food sovereignty. One way or anther, Cierra loves being involved in it all because it helps her broaden her perspective and opportunities on what it actually means to help the world around her.

I talked with her more about her experiences with research over the past year during our video interview. She helped write the Barberry Research Paper with Trey, Sarah and other Grad Students. They went to a state ecology conference this past January. She continues to work on research labs with our grad students outside of the classroom.

She also has several paid internship opportunities this summer collecting more ecological data across the country. Cierra is able to do all of this because she prioritizes what matters to her, what she is good at doing, and what she enjoys doing. By prioritizing projects that simultaneously help people and are fulfilling, she is able to stay woke and get all of her homework done.