Environmental studies professor Vicki Watson knows how to get students excited about sustainability — she gets them on the ground with a shovel in hand, ready to dig into a topic beyond the scope of class lectures.
Her teaching style is what caught the attention of the Missoula Sustainable Business Council, which named her "Sustainability Advocate of the Year," and will recognize her at a ceremony Wednesday night.
"There's a lot of sad news in the world these days, and it can get to be very depressing and disempowering," Watson said. "But students like to see that there's a group effort going on and that the community is doing something about these problems."
So Watson shows students what encouraging them to participate is doing.
Lisa Swallow, one of the council's board members, is now a colleague of Watson's, but said she had no formal education in environmental issues until taking one of Watson's classes. She already held a master's in accounting when she enrolled in environmental science 101, but she soon discovered a new direction in life after going with Watson to an old mine on a service-learning trip.
"That was one of the things that changed my career path," she said. "Shortly thereafter, I got a second master's in sustainable business."
That was 10 years ago. Today, she's following in Watson's footsteps. Swallow currently teaches sustainable business and accounting to students at the College of Technology.
"Vicki's got her fingers in every green pie," Swallow said. "She's like a centripetal force for everything happening on campus."
Miriam Aylward, membership and communications coordinator for the council, said Watson is responsible for coordinating thousands of hours of volunteer work each year.
To get the word out, Watson created a conservation calendar. Whenever she hears of an event, she'll post information about it to the environmental studies website. It's turned into a hub for students and community members to find out what's happening and what's being done to protect Montana's ecosystems.
Ultimately, Watson said she would like to see Missoula become a Transition Town, an initiative that originated Europe around five years ago. Transition Towns are self-sustaining communities that use a minimal amount of resources.
"It pulls together a lot of ideas Missoula is already doing," Watson said. "We're already working on sustainable food, protecting our aquifer, green shelter and green transportation."
She added that the University of Montana has done a lot to support this idea, but that neither the campus nor community can achieve it without the other's help.