Natural Resources Service-Learning Project Promotes Global Environmental Stewardship

Thursday, May 20 2010

Written by Sue McMurray

MOSCOW, Idaho – The words “required reading” can strike dread in the hearts of many high school graduates coming off the high of summer vacation, about to enter their first year of college. But for at least 26 honors freshmen, the University of Idaho’s required reading, “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben, struck a chord.

Students in College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Lee Vierling’s core class, “The Earth and Our Place On It,” decided to apply principles and themes of McKibben’s book toward a service-learning project designed to alleviate poverty around the world.

Vierling partnered with students, the Moscow community and Kiva, an online lending organization, to help people in developing countries obtain loans to accomplish entrepreneurial goals. By combining microfinance with the Internet, Kiva creates a global community of people connected through lending.

One of the project’s goals is to determine whether a “sweet spot” of environmental stewardship exists whereby microloans may lead to not only a more stable social community, but to more sustainable environmental practices such as soil and biodiversity conservation.

“The learning objectives of this course were to foster team building through collaborative, hands-on projects,” said Vierling. “In particular, we explored connections among biodiversity, deforestation, poverty, community resilience and the social status of women.”

The class initiated the project by doing odd jobs and providing musical entertainment for Moscow residents and fellow students at the University of Idaho. They used their $800 proceeds to grant four $200 microloans to entrepreneurs.

Though the class specifically targeted women living in developing countries to raise their standard of living, loans also were granted to men such as Bassidi Diarra, a 27-year-old single father who lives with a number of others in a large household in the Darsalam quarter of Ségou (the fourth largest administrative region in the Republic of Mali). Diarra operates a restaurant in the populous Darsalem quarter, near the Ségou central hospital and railway station. Concerned with raising enough funds to cope with increasing customer demand, he intends to use his $200 loan to buy cooking oil, meat and 30 chickens.

“When students carry out local service projects and then utilize the modest proceeds to collectively invest in global citizens in need, they are creating a win-win scenario that fosters a large number of positive outcomes,” said Vierling.

Vierling has started a university lending team, with a goal of establishing “leagues” of lenders, for example, alumni groups, students, parents and professors at other universities. Individuals or teams can start an account at through a process similar to the Pay Pal system. Kiva collaborates with field partners who represent banks all over the world. Field partners obtain loan applications from interested entrepreneurs, who are then profiled on the Kiva website for financial support. Loans are granted with low interest rates, which are returned to the field partners.

Vierling will live in Central America August 2010 through May 2011 to further research the phenomenon of microfinance and its relation to ecological sustainability. Through this sabbatical leave, he also plans to further develop and refine curricular modules for faculty to utilize in undergraduate courses to empower students and global citizens.
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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit