Our Final Days – Learning Sustainability in the Czech Republic

June 22, 2016

Written (and produced) by: Caroline Frier and Lillian Morse


The last two days of this whirlwind trip have been based in Ostrava, Czech Republic.  It is the third largest city in the Czech Republic and well-known for its steel manufacturing.  On Wednesday, we journeyed to a repurposed steel mill which now functions as a children’s museum, concert hall, cafe, and an educational destination for all ages.  We had fun while exploring the highest heights of Bolt Tower…well, most of us did.  Those with a fear of heights enjoyed the view from the glass outlook in the center of the tower, away from the fenced, open grate walkways.  Our tour guide was extremely informative about the past and now present functions of the factory.  He told us all about the steelmaking process, factory conditions, and the health risks steel workers faced at the time while showing us the control room, the furnaces, and the rest of the factory.  After that, he showed us a beautiful open social space and concert hall where we learned about Tara’s (one of our teaching assistants) hidden talent, singing.  But the day did not stop there!

Prior to meeting with local government officials regarding air quality policy and related industries, we enjoyed lunch in the government building.  After a satisfying meal, we talked with government officials about the problems Ostrava faces with air quality and the factors that contribute to it.  Truly, it is a wicked problem.  So many different factors from industry to heating use to wind patterns affect the air quality of the city that there is no one solution to solve all the problems.  The multifaceted nature of the problem was even more exemplified when we met with a Čisté nebe (Clear Skies) non-governmental organization (NGO) later in the day.  Their work was focused on improving air quality as well as educating the public about the health-related consequences of air pollution.  They talked about alerting the public through air quality apps and websites so that the citizens knew when it was not safe to exercise and when to limit their outdoor activities.

After a long, informative day of studying wicked problems in Ostrava, we sat down for a delicious, relaxing meal and were joined by the head of the NGO herself, Anna Plošková.  We all sat at dinner, reminiscing over the past few weeks, knowing that tomorrow, we would all be headed our separate ways.

June 23, 2016

On Thursday, our final day, we woke up, brought our bags downstairs and ate a delicious last breakfast.  Some of us took advantage of the last day of free chocolates at the front desk while others enjoyed a nice croissant and coffee.  We got confirmation from the front desk that the chateau is in fact haunted, as expected.  Then, the group headed out to Vitcovice’s functioning steel factory where we first met with officials and then were handed hard hats and led into the factory itself.  Although a very hot day, the steel factory was an amazing experience.  We saw parts being built for cars, airplanes, ships, and more.  Such large pieces of steel so carefully crafted to be smooth and flawless.  Also, Vitcovice’s has stopped making new steel.  All the steel they use to make their products now is recycled and repurposed.  We had the opportunity to watch as stainless steel was stretched and created, while we felt the heat radiating off of it from meters away.

After the steel mill, we returned back to the chateau for our final meal together.  Dr. Schenk held a final trip meeting and we each took our turn going around and sharing our favorite parts of the trips. Then, our group began to disperse to their after trip plans.  First, John and Andrew parted ways.  Then the group headed to Prague left.  Groups also headed to Vienna as well as other destinations.  Overall, we could not have hoped for a better group of students and faculty to study abroad with.  Everyone brought different knowledge and interests to the table.  The group was well rounded and enjoyed both times in and out of the classroom, with Dr. Schenk and Dr. Buehler.

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Wicked Sustainability Presentations in Budapest and Ostrava

Written by: Millie Smith and Jamie Bourgeois

June 20th, 2016

Early Monday morning, we met to take the suburban train to the outskirts of the city. At Békásmegyer, we met Dr. Frank Zsigo, a professor of political science at King Sigismund College. He walked us through the public housing developments on our way to the campus, telling us information about the area and pointing out interesting characteristics of this post-communist neighborhood.

Upon arrival at King Sigismund, we met Dr. Balázs Majtényi, who presented to our group about fundamental law of Hungary, its functions as a republic, and how current events have challenged the structure of governance within the state and European region. We learned from Dr. Majtényi that the refugee crisis is unprecedented in the history of any post-communist state. The crisis combined with a depressed economy and existing ethnic struggle with the Roma population, has caused a great deal of unrest within the Hungarian government and the European Union. In addition, the right-wing government has not helped in finding sustainable solutions to these cultural, economic, and human rights issues.

We expressed our gratitude to Frank and Balázs, departed the college, and once again boarded the suburban train. Another 20 minutes through the Hungarian countryside brought us to Szentendre, a village at the very edge of Budapest. We walked through the cobblestone streets to the Regional Environmental Center (REC), an international organization that seeks to promote sustainability and public participation in environmental decision-making. After a fabulous lunch, we had the pleasure of hearing from several of the project managers on topics that spanned from the REC’s environmental education initiatives, to water resource conservation in the Balkans, to green transportation advocacy, to civil society organizations in Ukraine, to public policy, civic engagement, and even more. We learned about the programs and initiatives taking place in 32 countries in conjunction with local, regional, national, and international government systems. Following the lectures, the group toured the newly-renovated green conference center and concluded the evening with a cookout in the beautiful REC garden. It was a full day, but one that stood out significantly from the rest.

June 21, 2016

Today we packed up our things and prepared to say goodbye Budapest. It was sad to depart so soon and many of us wished that we could continue exploring the city. However, it was time to go and we were looking forward to our adventures in Ostrava, Czech Republic. We arrived at the train station in the early hours of the morning and grabbed a few more pastries (which were heavenly) for the road. The train ride was a daunting six hours so many of us hunkered down and tried to get a few more hours of sleep that we desperately needed. Once in Ostrava, we gathered our things and met in the main terminal of the station. There, Dr. Schenk’s wife was waiting for us with a miniature bus and sandwiches for the ride. From the train station, we went on a personal bus tour given by Radka as we drove through the many streets of Ostrava. The tour started in a central area of Ostrava where the town hall and a college were located. We also traveled towards where the Roma gypsies were located and learned more about their living circumstances. It was a very intriguing and eye-opening portion of the day. Next, the bus took us to a castle that was built in the thirteenth century. Compared to other castles in Europe, this castle was fairly modest in design and size, but still very whimsical. There were many rooms and a few towers that we were able to explore. The castle was also filled with many art installations including wood carvings and paintings. Although most of us enjoyed the castle, a few of us were not thrilled to hear that the grounds were haunted by the ghost of the White Lady. The White Lady was named Hermine in real life and died tragically by drowning while trying to save a child. Overall though, we all enjoyed the castle and loved exploring the grounds. After the castle, we traveled to a suburb of Ostrava. There, we learned about the concrete slab high rises called “panel housing”, how they were built, and the social aspects surrounding them during the communist era.

At this point, most of us were fairly exhausted from traveling so we headed toward our accommodations while in Ostrava. It turns out that we were staying in a chateau built in the 1500s. The chateau was beautifully built inside and out. It had climbing vines along the walls, a beer garden and restaurant on the bottom floor, and uniquely decorated halls and rooms. Once luggage was stored in our rooms, we all met downstairs for dinner at the restaurant. We had many seats reserved for us and very courteous servers that brought beer and wine in record time. The live music that came from outside added to the cozy atmosphere and helped us all relax and enjoy our evening. During the dinner, we also had a special guest of the Schenks join us to talk about his experiences as a child growing up during the fall of communism. After an evening filled with delicious food and drinks, we all retired to our quarters upstairs. Some of us were exhausted from travels and decided to go straight to sleep. Others of us decided to end the day by enjoying a comical, light-hearted movie together. After the movie, we braved the ghosts some swear they saw, and went to sleep ready for our next day in Ostrava.


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Exploring Budapest

June 19th

Written by: Emma Martin

Today our group met in the lobby of the Corvin Plaza Suites at 9 am, and Dr. Schenk led the entire group on an educational walking tour around Budapest, the largest city in Hungary. We saw the Parliament building, as well as the Liberty Bridge, and some other amazing sights around the V, VI, VII, and VIII districts of the city. We had free time for lunch, and groups split up to choose from one of the many cafes along the popular Liszt Ferenc Ter pedestrian square. My group went to a traditional Hungarian style restaurant, where we all enjoyed some Hungarian cuisine. After lunch was over, we walked together to the Szechenyi Bath House. The baths were amazing. There were so many different baths both inside and outside, of all temperatures and sizes, to explore. My favorite in particular was the sauna, which was about 10 times hotter than any sauna that I have ever experienced in the US. Next to the sauna was an ice pool, and Dr. Schenk informed us that traditionally most people go into the sauna for a few minutes, then go immediately into the ice pool. We all attempted it, and it was a very interesting (and chilly!) experience! We spent the entire afternoon at the baths, and left around 7pm to again choose from the vast variety of restaurant choices in the city. After dinner many of us went out to explore one of Budapest’s famous “ruinpubs”, where derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces have been transformed into friendly, pleasing spaces to socialize. Talk about adaptive reuse!

Szechenyi Bath House


Ice Bath

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Train Rides from Venice to Vienna to Budapest


Written by Starla Couso and Emily Baker

June 17th, 2016

Today the group had some free time in Venice, Italy before our late night departure to Vienna, Austria. With so many things to see, the group split up to explore the city. The twisting, narrow streets were getting somewhat easier to navigate after a few days, but, every once in awhile, it was easy to find yourself a little lost – but that was part of the experience! Each street was littered with a variety of stores. From mask shops to ceramic cups to ‘I heart Venice’ t-shirts, Venice is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir.

Many students went to the Biennale, a bi-annual international architecture exhibition (hence the name Biennale) showcasing architectural projects from 63 different countries. The exhibition was spread across the city, but one main location was the beautiful Giardini gardens at the tip of the island. Here we found 29 of the 63 countries represented, each with a unique pavilion and exhibit. The topics were widespread from urban planning to material studies to sustainable development to architectural theory, so everyone found something (or many things!) that fascinated them. The country of Switzerland housed a giant molded sculpture that you could climb into. Australia analyzed the social hierarchy of the country’s people using a public pool as both a physical example and metaphorical allusion. South Korea studied the floor to area ratio in Seoul and how to utilize space effectively. Many of the exhibits were interactive, which made visiting each country exciting.

Several members of the group were also excited to watch the Italy versus Sweden Euro Cup soccer match that afternoon, with all the local Italian fans! When in Rome… or Venice, I suppose. Other students toured several historic buildings including St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, got last minute souvenirs, and some just enjoyed their time wandering the city and eating gelato! One student even decided to get a classic gondola ride through the canals.

We left the beautiful city of Venice in style. A water taxi arrived at our doorstep and weaved up the Grand Canal to give us one last look at the Venetian island. The fleeting light made the buildings glow and the water sparkle.

Arriving to the train station, we made our way to our couchettes. The nighttime ride was surely an adventure for us all. Each cabin held six people with stacked bunks. We managed to squeeze our luggage and ourselves into the couchettes before settling in. When I say squeezed, I really mean squeezed! Night quickly spread over the countryside and the pleasantly quiet train ride lulled us to sleep. We arrived in Vienna, Austria around eight the next morning.

June 18th, 2016

We arrived early Saturday morning after the 11-hour train ride to find a sunny day in Vienna, Austria waiting for us. We were certainly ready to get off the cramped train by that point! After a few cups of coffee and sprays of dry shampoo to freshen up, we made our way into the old city. As we walked over to the Belvedere Palace, we noted the multi-modal transportation systems – tram, bus, car, bikes, and pedestrians filled the streets in a complex but organized way. It was certainly the largest city we had been to on the trip so far! The group toured the historic 18th c. Baroque-styled Belvedere Palace for the morning. The majestic palace had a large reflecting pool that glistened in the morning light, surrounded by orange and yellow flowers, to greet visitors at the entrance. The building not only held an impressive art collection ranging from Medieval to Impressionism, but also had vast geometrical garden terraces in the back. Most notably was a substantial collection of Gustav Klimt’s artwork, which was surely a favorite of many students.

We then went to lunch nearby at Salm Brau with authentic local cuisine and its own brewery. After a long morning of walking it was nice to sit down and chat. The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around Vienna. With such a big city, it was impossible to see everything. Some groups went to shop, some went to the Parliament buildings, and others went to see the Opera Theatre and St Stephen’s Cathedral.

We then took a three hour train ride to Budapest, Hungary. Arriving around nine in the evening, we were greeted by excited Hungarian futbol fans who had just been watching the European Cup match. Some tired students settled into their apartments and went to bed, while others went out to explore the nightlife in Budapest.

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Venice History and the MOSE Project

Written by Tara Reel and Jacki Wilson

June 15, 2016

Our day started with an early wake up call for a 9:00 a.m. train ride from Riva San Vitale, Switzerland to Venice, Italy. Traveling has provided ample opportunity to experience Europe’s vast transportation options firsthand. We have traveled via high speed rail, trams, bicycles, and by foot. Venice provided a unique perspective since the city is situated in a lagoon and travel includes an aquaculture of water taxis and gondolas. During our morning train ride, we rode through northern Italy with a breathtaking view of the Alps. Once we arrived in Venice, we had to trek to our hotel that was only twenty minutes away, but seemed much longer with our caravan of luggage on a hot, sunny day. We were very relieved to finally see the refurbished monastery that is now student housing. Our apartments were fantastic!

During the afternoon, we had a lecture on the “History of Venice: Urban and Environmental Adventures” and an introduction to the MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, Experimental Electromechanical Module) by Francesca Zennaro, Program Assistant Researcher from the Thematic Environmental Networks (TEN). We learned that Venetians originally moved to the lagoon for its natural beauty and a landscape that created a barrier of defense against the barbarians during the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Venetian infrastructure consists of cobblestone paths forming a walkable city of narrow alleys surrounded by an aquaculture that lends itself to tourism. Given the crowds throughout the city, we were shocked to learn that at its peak population, the historic city of Venice had approximately 100,000 inhabitant. Nowadays, the population is 60,000.

Francesca elaborated on the city’s struggle to remain a vibrant tourist destination and livable city while dealing with sea level rise and recurrent flooding. Venice has known rising sea levels were an issue since 1975 when a call for proposals went out for solutions. Many options were debated through the years and it took nearly twenty years for leaders to settle on the MOSE project. The MOSE project is part of a combined sustainability effort to deal with higher tides and flooding. The city has taken measures involving coastal reinforcement, raising of quaysides, and paving the lagoon. The MOSE is designed to protect Venice and the lagoon from tides of up to approximately 10 feet.

The MOSE project has not been without its share of controversy. There have been arguments that it was chosen for political motives and only offers a short term solution by providing the city protection for the next hundred years. Francesca stressed that there needs to be a global discussion to find longer term sustainable solutions to this wicked problem impacting coastal regions.

With a day of travel and presentation concluding, it was time to try some local Italian food. For dinner we went to a pizzeria called All’Anfora. The food was great with a wide variety of options!

June 16, 2016

Today we had our boat tour with Francesca! We started from a dock close to our hotel and made our way around the island. We went through the Lido Inlet and saw the infrastructure of the MOSE project up close. The final stages of the project are underway and the system has been tested successfully throughout the past few years. The MOSE consists of rows of mobile gates at three inlets, including the Lido. The system temporarily separates the lagoon from the sea in the event of a high tide. At the Lido Inlet, the widest barrier consists of two rows of gates. The gates consist of metal structures connected to the concrete housing structures with hinges. When the tide rises, the structures will be activated creating a temporary dam that protects the lagoon. Under normal tidal conditions, the gates are full of water and rest in their housing structures. Over the years, there have been arguments that the structures will disrupt ecosystem there, but according to Francesca, the project hopes to preserve the lagoon and its marine life for years to come. When we returned to the main island following our tour, we went to Osteria Al Portego to enjoy traditional Venetian tapas.

During our lecture the day before, we learned about the alert system that warns Venetians and tourists of high water. In fact, we experienced an unseasonal high tide during our free afternoon and students navigated throughout the city as the water slowly creeped to higher levels. Local businesses who are used to dealing with flooding have found ways to adapt. Open cafes and businesses put up shields to protect their property from water damage. Vendors also sell collapsible boots to assist patrons in navigating the high water. In San Marco Square, the flooding was particularly bad with water rising above our knees!

On Thursday, we had free time in our afternoon and Venice certainly gave us many options to explore. Many of us spent time at the Piazza San Marco, known in English as Saint Marco or Saint Mark’s Square, which is the principal public square of Venice.. The site runs along the Great Canal and has many attractions including Saint Marco’s Basilica (Cathedral) and the Doge’s Palace. Doge’s Palace served as the epicenter of Venetian political and social institutions during the Middle Ages. While the palace contains secret rooms that housed prisoners, torture chambers, and council chambers alike, it is also richly decorated by the great artists of Venice.
Other students went to the Biennale, an architecture exhibit with displays from different countries from around the world. We went to the New Zealand and Hong Kong exhibits that were very impressive. We know everyone will continue their explorations during our free day in Venice on Friday.

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Class lectures and presentations in Riva San Vitale continued

Written by John Mattingly and Andrew Eitler

June 13th
We awoke to the sound of bells ringing on the hour, every hour, and three minutes past the hour every hour, as well as every half hour. After an action packed weekend, we woke up to our first formal meeting with Todd. During the lecture, he went over the itinerary for the rest of the trip and he got right into a presentation about civic institutions in the European Union (EU). After lunch we had a group discussion on sustainability and the problems it poses in Europe, which led into a brief discussion about our second research topics comparing policy in the United States and the EU. Once presented the true work on our papers began, however, some of us felt the need for a little down time at the lake one last time before we left Riva. After sunbathing, swimming and kayaking, followed by gelato, we rejoined our classmates at the villa to continue our work. With a short break for dinner, most of the night was spent on finishing our papers and preparing our presentations for the following morning. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day for us all.

Lake Lugano

June 14th
After a quick breakfast, presentations began. Since each student pursued a unique research topic specific to their interests, the presentations were very informative and engaging, covering a broad array of topics. Due to well-prepared presentations followed by insightful questions from the class, presentations spilled into our lunchtime, and had to be resumed in the afternoon. During lunch, a growing panic about a suspected supernatural entity (a ghost! Hah!) afoot in the villa reached a fever pitch. Speculation about the identity of the visitor was rampant; could this specter be malicious or a harmless trickster? After lunch, Todd quickly calmed our racing minds with calculated reason. Once the remaining presentations were concluded, Todd introduced the focus of the rest of the course: Wicked Sustainability. Wicked problems are those that are complex and multi-faceted with no clear solution. We will soon discuss an example in Venice about the MOSE project. With this introduction we discussed and refined our final research topics. Having received helpful feedback on our presentations, those of us who had not yet completed the essay chose to make some final adjustments before submission. Those who had finished went about doing laundry, packing, and any other last minute errands before our early morning departure towards Venice on Wednesday. With preparation the next day completed, we went about answering perhaps the most challenging question of the study abroad thus far; how to spend our last day in Riva San Vitale. Some took one last visit to Lugano, some relaxed in the lounge watching the Euro Cup soccer tournament or The Bachelorette. Dinner came and went and the last thing on the agenda was to get caught up with the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Due to frustrating technical difficulties and a potential encounter with our friendly apparition, this proved to be much more difficult than we had anticipated, with some audience members unable to stay up to the end. Following this final challenge, it was time for us all to head to bed for some much needed rest before embarking on a journey to the worldly city of Venice, Italy for our next European adventure.

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Transportation Lessons Learned and Exploring Riva San Vitale

Written by: D’Arcy Sampson, Chandler Windom, and Nick Phandinh

Thursday, June 9

To start off our first day in Riva San Vitale, we met in the Steger Center’s new classrooms and recapped our experiences of Freiburg’s transportation system. The class discussed how students were surprised by some positive aspects of the system; the car-free areas throughout the city, the integration of nature in living spaces and infrastructure, the widely used tram system, and many of Freiburg’s social dimensions of sustainability. Professor Buehler gave a lecture on “Mode of Choice” transportation, which sparked a discussion on sustainable transport and development. Students split into groups and gave mock presentations on the Vauban neighborhood to hypothetical stakeholders interested in adopting similar policies in the U.S. Each presentation gave us insight into how Freiburg’s policies could be globally applied.

We spent some time in the afternoon working on our first assignment, researching numerous aspects of Freiburg’s sustainable transportation policies and preparing for our individual presentations the following day. After several days of intense traveling and learning, a number of students went to the small beach in Riva San Vitale on Lake Lugano to swim, relax, and enjoy the view from a small dock in the middle of the lake. Some students had dinner at the Steger Center, and a few others tried out their Italian at a local restaurant. We celebrated Nick’s birthday with pizza and paninis; Buone Feste, Nick!

Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano in Riva San Vitale


Friday, June 10

We woke up to ringing church bells from the Baptistery across the street, and after breakfast started our individual presentations on our research. Students gave presentations on Freiburg’s transportation, with topics including biking, walking, public transit, housing, accessibility, social equity, and land use. Every presentation was interesting, and students were eager to ask questions to further their understanding. Presentations were followed by our final lecture from Professor Buehler on policy change. We discussed the barriers to policy change in the U.S. and ways to overcome them and create meaningful policy change. Our class had a thought-provoking discussion on if Millennials have different opinions from past generations’ views on sustainability.

After class, some students started the weekend by spending the afternoon at the lake again, relaxing and making friends with some locals. For the evening, we took the tram into Lugano for dinner and a night on the town. We strolled the steep hills to get down to the city center. We ate dinner outside at an Italian/Swiss restaurant, with pizza, pasta, and risotto. Afterwards, we found some live music in a square and enjoyed the waterfront of Lake Lugano.

Dinner in Lugano

Italian/Swiss cuisine in downtown Lugano

Our days in class were followed by a free weekend where students split up and traveled all over. Students explored and shopped in Milan, went hiking in the Alps, watched a futball (soccer) match in Lugano, went down a mountain coaster on Monte Tamaro, and saw the castles of Bellinzona. We said goodbye and many thanks to Professor Buehler after an amazing experience in Freiburg and Riva San Vitale, and are excited for the rest of our time with Professor Schenk.


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