We both love to travel and know how much you learn when traveling. We also are both really interested in issues relating to sustainability and societal transformation. For a couple years we kept thinking about how we could potentially combine the two. Then, on a train-ride back to Vienna from a conference entitled 'Beyond Growth' in Berlin, the 'Choose Your Own Sustainability Adventure' idea came to us! It seemed like a cool way to empower our partner school classes and not only make them part of the sustainability adventure, but also FEEL like they are part of it! Also, technology has advanced so much in the past few years and access to internet is practically ubiquitous, without which we wouldn't have been able to do the project how we have. It's also a concept that could be scaled up to include other travelers and classes with relatively little investment, which is our long-term goal. We didn't want to just go on one trip and share some experiences with a couple classes in Austria and the US and then stop after a year, but instead view that first year as a pilot year in which we'd like to work out any kinks in the project, get feedback from our classes and teachers, develop the game further and then - provided we find funding - expand it to include others.
We met at the university in Germany. Matt was finishing up his BA in German and Spanish and Valentina was at the beginning of her BA in sociology. We were both really interested in international studies and politics and Valentina has always been really active in environmental issues. After Matt finished his BA in the US, he came back to Europe to be closer to Valentina and ended up getting an MA in international relations from a German university while Valentina got her MA in European institutions and regional governance. Like most students and new graduates, we did a lot of internships: Matt's were in France, Germany, Jordan and Switzerland and focused on everything from cultural diplomacy and geopolitics to the effects of climate change on people around the world. Valentina interned in Italy, France, Germany... and focused on cooperative energy, sustainable lifestyles, regional development... After that it was a relatively natural step for us to move towards academia and a stroke of luck that we both got jobs at the same university in Vienna. Valentina worked for almost four years primarily on a research project at the Institute of Organic Agriculture and Matt worked on research, grant-writing, events, etc. at the Center for Global Change and Sustainability. It was during that time that we came up with the idea for our Choose Your Own Sustainability Adventure e-game and decided to go for it and try to make it work.
One of the biggest challenges has been the work load. A lot of people at home tend to think that we hang out on the beach all day and drink cocktails, but in reality we sit in front of our computers as much as we did at our old jobs at the university, if not more. Between communicating with our classes and teachers, with partners, looking for sponsors, writing grants, editing videos, translating texts, interviewing sustainability pioneers and visiting projects - not to mention volunteering for other projects occasionally - we rarely take a full-day off. That can be a bit much after a few months, not just personally, but also for our relationship. It's definitely a challenge - albeit a fun one - to be a couple and co-workers...and that 24/7! On the other hand the world is our office and we meet almost daily new and inspiring people from all over the world. So that pays off - even if not financially. And when a small team and limited financial resources meet big plans and project aspirations, that is probably the biggest challenge. Thats why we are looking forward to getting other volunteers involved - especially towards the end of the next school year when we extend the "sustainability adventure" to include even more people and schools!
Overwhelmingly positive so far! After getting back to Vienna, we met with our Austrian partner classes and discussed the project with them and had them fill out anonymous questionnaires about the project and the responses were really motivating. We also got some great feedback from them and the teachers on ways to improve, which we're working on integrating into the game during the summer break, and we're looking forward to the next school year!
Yeah, so far we have been using almost exclusively our own funds. We applied for and received a little money from the Austrian Ministry of Education for the professional development of the online platform. Other than that, we're using what we saved from our wedding 4 years ago along with 3 years of work at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.
We didn't set ourselves a specific savings plan and then budget our money each month based on that but rather tried to live simply while still enjoying life. Living simply (and saving as much as possible) to finance the project was surprisingly not too difficult, although we earned less than most of our friends. Living simply for us meant not spending much more than one salary for rent, food and life in general and saving the other one for this 2-year project. We didn't and still don't have car or house payments or other debts. Since education is essentially free in Germany, we also don't owe any money for studying. We basically just spent the money on good local and/or organic food and our rent, about 30 euros per month on internet and cell phone costs, 30 euros each on monthly public transportation in Vienna, and of course some money here and there for social activities and visiting family and friends. Since shopping isn't one of our hobbies, we saved a lot by getting 'new' (to us) things that we needed through exchange, second-hand shops, etc. Getting and getting rid of things through the gift economy - like freecycling (where we got our furniture for our old apartment) - was also a great way to save money and resources without 'going without'. For the final challenge of the school year we were able to use a small amount of money that the project was awarded as part of the Austrian ideas competition 'Teaching for a Sustainable Future'. That allowed us to go on a field trip with our Austrian partner classes.
Wow, that's a difficult question! Or really easy, depending on how you look at it. The easy answer is that the whole trip has been super exciting! Traveling is always exciting and when you combine that with discovering and interviewing people about their own sustainability projects, working with classes on two continents and having them influenced our trip, and trying to travel without flying, it becomes even more exciting. As far as specific, exciting parts of the trip goes, we had some new experiences with different forms of transportation that were exciting.
At the beginning of the trip we rode our bicycles through part of Washington state and a large chunk of the Californian coast. That was our first time ever touring by bicycle and we weren't sure what to expect. We had some long days pulling our +50kg trailer with our gear up some long hills, not to mention a few later-than-expected arrivals at campgrounds in the dark, but the experience was amazing and we met wonderful people and stopped at places along the way that we would never have met or seen if we would have been traveling by plane, car, train or bus.
And one other highlight of the trip for us was taking a cargo ship from Colombia to Italy in May. What was supposed to take two weeks ended up taking three weeks on account of engine problems. We were happy that we didn't end up drifting in the middle of the Atlantic...instead we drifted for a day in the Mediterranean and it wasn't clear if we'd have to wait for a tugboat to be sent from Italy or if the ship's mechanics could fix the problem. The mechanics worked 24-hours straight and were able to get the engine running well enough to limp to Italy...at about 14km/hr! Regardless of the engine issues, the voyage was awesome! Being the only two passengers on a 200 meter ship full of containers and copper, mostly from Chile, eating with the crew, enjoying amazing sunsets in the middle of the Atlantic and star-filled nights without light-pollution from nearby towns or cities, having a glass of wine on the bow of the ship as we entered the Strait of Gibraltar with Europe to one side and Africa to the other and the sun setting behind us was unforgettable. And in terms of our project, it was the perfect way to get some internet-free time to process the 8-month trip mentally and start the long process of sorting through more than 17,000 photos and 30 hours of video material from the trip!
There are always doubts when you try something new - especially when you invest so much time and energy into it, not to mention money! But at the same time we believed in - and continue believing in - the concept and want to see it work out well! It's motivating to get positive feedback from our classes and their teachers (which we completely lucked out with) and we hope that we can bring it to the next level. While we believe in the project and it has been successful to a certain extent, there still remains a lot to do. We have some great people who volunteer their time to help us, but their and our capacities are limited, which is a continuous challenge.
We lucked out and were able to book a cargo ship that fit into our budget that was going from Colombia to Italy in May. This was great timing, because we arrived back in Vienna in time for the end of the school year, which was a great opportunity to wrap up the pilot year with our Austrian partner classes in person. We were able to go to each school, present parts of the trip that didn't make it into our other media channels and answer any and all questions they had. We also had the chance to organize a fieldtrip with both classes together, so that they could meet each other in person.
Now we're evaluating the first year and planning the coming school year. Around mid-August we'll be leaving from Central Europe to head by land through Russia, Mongolia and China to Southeast Asia. Like last year, we'll have classes in the US and Austria co-designing our trip and following us as part of the e-learning game. After that, we hope to come back to Austria and expand the e-game to include other travelers and classes - also in or from other parts of the world. Our dream is to have multiple travelers working with classes throughout the world, reaching a much larger number of students and filling our map of sustainability initiatives with organizations and people that they meet along the way!
Of course, to reach that level, we'll need to get external funding. Our budget for this coming year is smaller than last year, so we'll have to travel more 'creatively'. And we'll keep on looking for funding opportunities for the project itself - like IT support, communication and outreach - throughout the year. Like you said, crowdfunding could be a good opportunity for the project, though we're still trying to decide how to best go about doing that.