In the Autumn Semester 2020, Jacqui and Maeve from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) took part in the Virtual Classroom Environmental Challenge (VEC) which is an online course and competition for students. The programme was developed as peer education in an international context by Prof Christine Evain, Rennes 2, France and coordinated at UL by Prof Mairead Moriarty, VP Global and Community engagement. 8 teams of students from 5 different countries including Norway, Burkina Faso, Slovakia and France, sought new and innovative ways to improve and promote the sustainability of their campus environments, by competing in weekly challenges. Congratulations to Maeve and Jacqui were voted the winning team at the final in December 2020.

‘I am Jacqui, 20 years old, from Limerick, and I am in my 3rd year pursuing a BA in Geography and Public administration. I have a passion for biogeography, and especially habitat conservation.

My name is Maeve, I am 21 years old from Galway. Currently in my third year of a BA Arts degree studying French and Geography. I hope to pursue Geography after my undergraduate degree.

The challenge was to create an “eco campus” to develop ideas of how to make a college campus more eco-friendly. Each team was told to be as creative as they wanted and dream as big as they wanted, but we decided to be realistic with our ideas and design things that could actually be implemented in the UL campus.

The main objectives of VEC were to develop peer education in an international context, promote cross-campus exploration of environmentally projects and the development of digital literacy and interdisciplinary project management skills.

We were very fortunate to have a great tutor, Conan from France. It was a great way to get to know someone from a different country and culture. Still, of course, there were a few challenges we had to overcome – we had to adapt to talking to people whose first language was not English (initially the organisers thought English was not Ireland’s first language! Normally people don’t know Irish is even a language so this was a pleasant surprise). As the Irish are famous for talking and talking too fast, we had to watch ourselves and be considerate. Internet issues were the next challenge. Working over video chat has its perks, but rural Ireland’s internet service’s unreliability is a significant downside. Doing a presentation when you know your internet could drop at any second really raises the nerves! Having said that it was a fantastic experience as collaborating online is the way the world is going, so we are grateful to have had this project to increase our technological skills.

We wanted to keep our ideas realistic with the overall goal of presenting them to UL to implement. Our main idea was to create a UL Wildlife Tracking app so that people on campus could take a picture when they see swans on the river, or a flock of geese flying over the Living Bridge or even a dog on a walk; this would create excitement about these animals that we are so fortunate to see on campus and have a community of people engaging on the app. We would also like to see information signs that detail the wildlife around campus, telling students and those who visit the campus for walks more about these creatures and what they can do to help create a safe and sustainable habitat for them on campus. Further, we realised the great potential for wildflower gardens in UL as we have plenty of green spaces. The stretch of grass going from the Quad to the Kemmy is the perfect space to grow wildflowers, increasing bee and other insect populations leading to higher pollination levels. The weekly farmers market is something UL is already doing. It is a fantastic opportunity for students to buy local produce and eat healthier and more sustainable food. We want to see more promotion of this market and increase its popularity even more among students.

These were our ideas, but other teams had some great ones as well. As animal lovers, we especially liked that sheep were being used to cut campus grass and wish we could have some at UL! Using the heat produced by computer servers to heat rooms on campus was also a very innovative idea. An “Eco Concert” was also suggested, to promote eco-friendliness and send their message through music, we hope one day for an invite to this concert!

It was very interesting to see how other team’s universities are run, their campuses, and what ideas they came up with. One of the teams presented their concept as a story of their day, and it was fascinating to see what their typical day is like and how it differs or is similar to our own, we were especially jealous that they still get to be on-campus for their classes! We learned so much from the other teams and it was so interesting and engaging to see people whose first language isn’t English, speak as though they’ve been speaking it their whole life!

It was a fantastic opportunity to connect with people from different countries, see life different from our own and come together on the things we shared. Of course, there will be challenges with any project for example, we only had two teammates as you know, but we overcame them all and had fun doing so. It was a very rewarding experience, having won the challenge, and we are so honored to have won and appreciate everyone who liked our ideas and voted for us. Still, even in just taking part, we achieved everything we wanted, to share our passion for geography, climate change and wildlife! We would definitely recommend this challenge to other years. It opens your eyes to the possibilities of change around you even the small changes you can make to be more eco-friendly!’