Thursday, March 5, 2009

Interview with a graduate researcher

Lots of professional people all around the country are interested in Unity College's sustainability curriculum, the required third year Environmental Sustainability class, and the Sustainability Design and Technology degree program. This has led to our participation in several national curriculum studies, and invitations to present at various conferences and meetings, particularly for our President, Mitch T. but also for some of us faculty.

This interview from a Canadian graduate researcher was just the latest. Enjoy:

Attempting to provide a base environmental education in the undergraduate
level can have its difficulties and be very complex.

Q: When did Unity begin to emphasise environmental education?

A; Probably around 1972 or 1973. The college was founded as a primarily local enterprise (although from the outset it attracted students from the cities), and had few facilities, so it concentrated on what it could do for the local economy, using local expertise, and spending much time outside to make up for the lack of facilities, which led to an emphasis on the rural environment. Eventually the college became more of a regional centre for conservation and conservation management, and this led to early consideration of some sustainability efforts, for instance, an early ESCO study in the late 1970s, and our acquisition of the Jimmy Carter solar panels in 1993.

Q: Where does the impetus for environmental educational endeavour originate? (bottom- up, top-down, by faculty, administration or students?)

A: The most recent wave of environmental thinking at Unity College was led, or at least inspired in large part, by students who wanted the college to "walk it's talk." The college had lots of programming that emphasized the environment, but inefficient, poorly designed buildings, and conventional packaged food service food from far away, when certain types of local food are cheap and abundant. A certain small set of the (academically better) students complained, even holding a few minor rallies and "direct actions," as, for instance, when a short -sighted administrative decision to have Sodexho Marriot take over the food services was in the offing. I call this event in the college's history, with tongue in cheek, "the Sodexho Riot." Really it was a small rally of about 120 students on the lawn. But 120 students is a lot of students at Unity and the administration soon recanted.

A movement among liberal arts faculty to emphasize sustainability in teaching was parallel in chronology, but had a very different trajectory. It was reinforced morally and politically by the movements among students. It led to the institution of a required course in "human ecology" in 2000, and to my hiring in 2000 as the first professor of human ecology.

Q: What were the main challenges to providing such education? (Financial costs. Faculty or administrative resistance. Student involvement.)

A: The main challenge was and remains the proportionally large number of students in two overlapping groups: 1) those students not politically interested in sustainability, climate change and related issues, or opposed to them, primarily because they are from conservative rural backgrounds and on a career trajectory in uniformed conservation service or some other professional degree field that they feel unrelated to climate change (despite strenuous efforts to teach them connections between conservation and climate change), and 2) those students who just cannot or will not do the work to understand the scientific and mathematical complications of climate change and mitigation.

Both groups have been decreasing in size and impact as the college transforms itself from a regional environmental college to a prominent national one.

Cost, particularly of better, greener facilities, remains the great bottleneck. Not so much for classes. We made a large commitment to teaching sustainability long ago, and have only reinforced it with recent hires and curriculum changes.

Q: What would you describe as being the key components to implementing the programs and making it effective?

A: Persistence and attitude! Not taking no for an answer! Specifically, the willingness of the key instructors to confront, in a direct but relatively friendly way, both the conservative attitudes and the general sloth referred above, with solid, relatively conventional but persistent, traditional, science teaching methods to bring students up to a decent standard of environmental knowledge.

This paid off in a nice way recently when students attending the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Austin TX suddenly realized that they were the best trained, most knowledgeable students there, including several graduate students. They generally hate having to learn so much fact and detail, but in the way of much hard-won knowledge, were surprised to discover it was in fact important and useful. Go figure.

Q: How has the emphasis on environmental education, in your opinion, changed
academic structure or curriculum (Interdepartmental coordination, experiential learning or higher emphasis of environmental material in lectures or class syllabus)

A: We are moving towards more coordination, with the recent creation of a new department, the Center for Global Change and Sustainability, with several expert faculty and staff support. The curriculum was changed considerably and formally. It now has required courses. These are consistently and frequently taught. We also now have degree programs in these areas, and a growing stable of specialized courses. These changes can be detected by reading the catalogs over time.

We always emphasized experiential learning. Unfortunately, with the high class size (25) in the required courses, and a M-W-F, 50 minute or T-Th, 1 hour, 15 minute schedule, it's hard to do too many field trips. A attempt to add a laboratory was shelved for lack of space and time. We may take this back up soon.

Our material has been primarily environmental since the mid 1970s. This is a mostly a change in emphasis, reflecting the increasing importance of global change.

Q: What has been student response to the compulsory environmental courses? Is there any indication of increasing eco-literacy or student initiated sustainability projects or discussions?

A: Many students still complain. Funnily enough, even the students who by their actions outside of class (attending rallies, protesting) show they are interested in climate change, may still complain when they have to learn it formally and in detail. But, as mentioned above, we must be doing something right because our students know more than others encountered at national events.

As to independent indications or verification, the answer is yes, of course. We are professionals. We use requirements, primarily examination requirements, and outcomes assessment. Very straightforward and verifiable. No student is permitted to graduate Unity College without demonstrating a competency in climate change, energy, energy efficiency, and general concepts of sustainability. If they fail the third year required course course they must retake it and pass it. Students demonstrate on examination that they meet the requirements for the course, which include an overall eco-literacy style goal of understanding general sustainability questions. The examinations and other products are later used in assessment to determine whether or not the course was successful in meeting its goals and attaining outcomes. We have not yet subjected this assessment to verification and oversight by a larger group of faculty, but with the new center, I hope to do this soon as part of a curriculum revision.

Outcomes assessment is a conventional best practice encouraged by our accreditation body, and the US federal government, through the Spelling Commission report. Not all colleges do it (although many say they do), but we do a routine semester-by-semester assessment in this course.

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