Sheri Hall
In College of Human Ecology, Human Centered Design
students work on a project with mattress materials

A student in the course Sustainability in Action works with the team on their project to come up with an alternative use for mattress materials. Photo: Darcy Rose/Provided


The College of Human Ecology has always taken an interdisciplinary approach to education, examining real-world issues from a diverse range of fields and perspectives.

As part of recent strategic priorities defined by the College, one focus has been developing innovative courses that provide students with unique opportunities to better understand the multilayered influences on human health and well-being. These college-wide, cross-listed and sometimes co-taught courses showcase the College’s scholarly areas of excellence and breadth of CHE’s expertise while contributing to a transformative Human Ecology education.

“The goal is to teach classes that combine the strengths of the disciplines in Human Ecology and demonstrate how powerful that approach can be,” said Rachel Dunifon, Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology, who is teaching one of the new courses. “We want to illustrate the value of bringing together diverse expertise and provide opportunities for students to develop a Human Ecology mindset.”

Three of the new courses that exemplify these principles are: Health Equity from the Human Ecology Perspective; Sustainability in Action; and Global Textile and Apparel Sustainability.

“These classes help provide students with the skills, expertise, and perspective to improve human lives,” Dunifon said.

Zoom screen from a class on health equity

Dean Rachel Dunifon (top left) meets with her class on Health Equity from the Human Ecology Perspective via Zoom at the beginning of the semester. Photo: Provided


Working toward health equity

Dunifon’s class, Health Equity from the Human Ecology Perspective, grounds students in a knowledge of health equity and embraces the College’s enduring focus on interdisciplinary problem solving.  The course involves engaging with faculty, alumni and community partners to understand how Human Ecology advances health equity in various contexts.

Students explore how their core majors in nutrition, design, and human development connect in addressing the challenges of increasing health equity. Building from this knowledge, throughout the semester, students work in multidisciplinary teams to develop an intervention or new approach that addresses a specific challenge of their choosing related to health equity.

“Teaching this class is the highlight of my week,” Dunifon said. “The students have great questions and insights. We hope this is just the beginning, and we’ll be able to offer more interdisciplinary courses in the future that engage students in a way that highlights the importance and impact of a Human Ecology education.”

One of the students in the class said the Human Ecology approach of addressing current issues from a variety of perspectives was a guidepost on their academic path to a meaningful career: “The variety of career paths taken by Human Ecology alumni and their successes in many different fields speaks to the incredible foundation a Cornell Human Ecology education provides and its power in encouraging students to explore the world of possibilities.”

Students put sticky notes on a board

Students in the course Sustainability in Action brainstorm ideas for their team project. Photo: Darcy Rose/Provided


Finding a new use for discarded materials

In another one of the new courses, Sustainability in Action: Radical ReUse, students must find creative ways to repurpose the components of discarded residence hall mattresses and develop new products that address pressing human needs.

“This course really is multifaceted,” said Nancy Wells, professor in the Department of Human Centered Design and senior associate dean for research and graduate education. “It integrates research and design. There will be some focus on material science, a focus on social science research, and it culminates in a design competition.”

Designed by Wells, the class begins with a series of guest lectures from professionals in the reuse and mattress recycling industry, materials science experts and professionals focused on sustainability. Students then delve into the social science literature regarding one of three human development themes: child cognitive development, adolescents’ sense of purpose, or student mental health. Working in interdisciplinary teams, they design a product to address their topic. At the end of the class, students can win awards and monetary prizes for their products.

Over the past year, the College has identified sustainability as a key area of excellence. I have also been thinking about the notion of articulating the identity and impact of Human Ecology. I am always looking for opportunities to celebrate and recognize what we are. All of that comes together in this class.

Nancy Wells
Human Centered Design

Wells got the idea for the course after seeing a call for proposals from the Mattress Recycling Council asking for research related to the use of recycled mattress materials. The council is a partner in the course, providing both funding and expertise.

“Over the past year, the College has identified sustainability as a key area of excellence. Sustainability is a topic about which I am passionate as well,” Wells said. “I have also been thinking about the notion of articulating the identity and impact of Human Ecology. I am always looking for opportunities to celebrate and recognize what we are. All of that comes together in this class.”

student on a trip to FabScrap

Students in the course Global Textile & Apparel Sustainability will visit facilities like this one at FabScrap, a textile recycling facility in Brooklyn. Photo: Provided


Leading fashion to be more sustainable

A third innovative course – Global Textile & Apparel Sustainability, taught by Professor Margaret Frey and Lecturer Fran Kozen from the Department of Human Centered Design – immerses students in the real-life, contemporary challenges of sustainability in the fashion industry. 

The course taps into the rich knowledge and experience of Human Ecology alumni, specifically Fiber Science & Apparel Design graduates who are leading sustainability efforts across the industry. Examples include designer buy-back programs to reduce waste and the creation of new materials made from mushrooms and algae. It features guest speakers from academia, fashion brands and industry to lead students in discussions of the possibilities and difficulties in making industry-wide change.

Frey and Kozen developed this course in response to student demand.

“For the fashion industry, sustainability is a complex interdisciplinary challenge with human behavior and business aspects as well as environment, materials and labor targets,” Frey said. “As students explore these issues, they examine the relationships between our desires to have inexpensive, fashionable and easy-care garments and important sustainability issues like chemical and microplastic pollution, fair labor policies, and post-consumer waste and renewable energy.

“Among the important questions is who is responsible for leading the fashion industry to increased sustainability? Is it the brands, influencers, the consumers, governments, workers, or NGOs?” she said. 

The course, which is held in the fall semester, was structured to connect the fashion industry to the 17 sustainability goals outlined by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. For next fall, the class received funding from two sources: A College of Human Ecology Engaged Course Grant will fund an optional component exploring apparel and textile upcycling and recycling in Tompkins County in conjunction with a community partner, and a $21,000 grant from Cotton Inc. will support expanding the course and further incorporating a community engagement aspect.