Where are they now? Winston Thompson interviews Cathy Middlecamp

In our “Where Are They Now?” series, current student interns interview former interns about their experience at the Office of Sustainability, and in particular how that experience has helped them since graduation. In the following entry, Winston Thompson expands on this model by interviewing the former Director of Sustainability Education and Research at UW–Madison, Dr. Cathy Middlecamp. 

Though the UW–Madison community might take for granted that the Office of Sustainability participates in education and research as well as facilities and operations, this holistic approach to campus sustainability wasn’t always in place. In a conversation with Cathy Middlecamp, the inaugural Director of Education and Research at the Office of Sustainability, I learned the challenges of bridging these two facets of campus life. Cathy’s passion for sustainability and willingness to be hands-on ultimately transformed the campus into a thriving laboratory for sustainability teaching, learning, and research. Cathy Middlecamp currently holds the title of Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin–Madison after a long and distinguished career in both the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Chemistry Department. Although officially retired, her active engagement might suggest otherwise, as she dedicates her time to travel and the development of sustainability education programs around the world.  

Cathy Middlecamp, professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaches during her Environmental Studies 126 - Principles of Environmental Science lecture course in the Chemistry Building.
Cathy Middlecamp teaches during her Environmental Studies 126 – Principles of Environmental Science lecture course in the Chemistry Building on March 2, 2017. Here, Middlecamp shows students the burning properties of hydrogen gas held in a balloon. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

Cathy significantly shaped the Office of Sustainability’s approach to integrating campus sustainability efforts with student learning opportunities. This approach to using “campus as a living lab” for sustainability education was already familiar to Cathy from her own teaching. A particularly illustrative example was the inception of Environmental Studies (Envir St) 126, known as Principles of Environmental Science. This innovative course challenges students to learn about real-world sustainability issues facing the university. Cathy described how she used her chemistry background to help build Envir St 126 where she taught students to ask questions such as “What’s in the air, how did it get there and what does it do to you?” 

Cathy recalled a unique project that emerged from collaborating with a graduate student assisting her with the course. This project had students go to a restaurant “at Union South and analyze a carbon footprint of one of the meals there.” Cathy and her grad students turned this project into a successful lab for Envir St 126. This exercise underscored Cathy’s practical approach to education and her management of the Office of Sustainability. Her strategy was all about bridging the divide between the realms of facilities and academics. 

Cathy readily recognized the importance of Facilities Planning and Management (FP&M), which she dubbed “the campus Ninjas,” to operating campus and thus to improving sustainability at UW–Madison. To start building rapport with FP&M employees, she walked right up to the Charter Street Heating & Cooling plant and knocked on the door asking if their departments could start working together. The relationship that followed between the Office of Sustainability and FP&M not only allowed for increased communication between the two teams but also the opportunity for tours of the Charter St. facility for educational purposes, which continue to this day. 

From left to right: Dr. Matt Fisher, ACS Award Symposium, Organizer; Dr. Patrick Daubenmire, ACS Division of Chemical Education Program Committee, Chair; Dr. Cathy Middlecamp.
Cathy Middlecamp accepted the George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education from the American Chemical Society (ACS) at its national meeting in Orlando, March 30 – April 4, 2019. The ACS is the world’s largest scientific society, with over 150,000 members from 140 countries. From left to right: Dr. Matt Fisher, ACS Award Symposium, Organizer; Dr. Patrick Daubenmire, ACS Division of Chemical Education Program Committee, Chair; Dr. Cathy Middlecamp.

While an entire novel could be written about the triumphs of Cathy’s work at the Office of Sustainability, this is a “Where are they now” article and not a “Where were they then.” When I spoke to Cathy in early August, she had recently returned from a trip to Israel on a Fulbright scholarship. In Israel, she worked with the Weizmann Institute of Science on sustainability education programs. She said her favorite part of the trip was visiting their landfill, which seemed to be equal parts waste disposal and education as there were school children everywhere learning about where their waste went and how the landfill worked. Cathy also described how much of the landfill education center’s infrastructure was made from repurposed material, including “mirrors made out of car rear view mirrors” in their bathroom and even a “coffee shop where everything was made out of something else.” Cathy also described her role as a consultant for a team building a new municipal waste disposal facility in Chesapeake, Virginia. She explained that her role was to help the team turn the disposal facility into a classroom where the city could teach citizens how to repurpose their waste in a “trash to treasure” program. Through these anecdotes, it became clear that Cathy is still very passionate about people and the planet and continues to put her skills forged at the Office of Sustainability to work. 

To conclude our interview, I asked Cathy if she had any suggestions for groups trying to achieve sustainable change on campus. She stated that in her view, “I’ve never seen anything really happen that hasn’t started with the students,” explaining that while faculty have the power to teach what they believe in through courses like Principles of Environmental Science, the University only really starts taking notice when students speak up. As for current Office of Sustainability interns and other campus advocates, she said to “keep doing what you’re doing, you’ve got power that you don’t know you have, and a little bit of friendship and caring goes a long way.”