coffee connection: the sustainability dance

Today I discussed the difference between a curriculum that supports sustainability education versus cross-curricular activities that supports education for sustainability. The discussion began eight a few weeks ago when we met at a sustainability teaching workshop. At the workshop, we began a dialogue about pedagogy for sustainability. It began when groups of instructors and professors developed small course activity focused on sustainability issues. As each group presented a 15 min. lesson plan based on an object provided by the workshop coordinators,the types of comments they received from other faculty at the University focused on elements that made the activity useful in a traditional “active learning” sense. This was unsatisfying to me. Having read a lot of Arnim Wiek’s writing on sustainability pedagogy that synthesizes across the sustainability majors and sustainable development majors. His review identifies five areas of “competency” for sustainability as a field. This includes building a capacity to: think about systems, understand the normative dimensions of decision-making,connect future scenarios with current action, evaluate the influence and feasibility of interventions,and develop knowledge beyond an individual’s capacity. In the workshop we talked about systems thinking, but not these other five elements. Further, we did not discuss whether these elements were all equivalently appropriate in it the case where sustainability education is infused across many curricula instead of existing in a single department, major, or center. I thought about this a lot in terms of Jennifer teaching, which includes dance courses offered to non-dance majors. In her teaching, she has encountered many students to do not think, for example, that climate change is an issue that they should understand or want to understand.

Philosophically, I believe adding you types of people to think about sustainability is perhaps the biggest challenge and the the biggest opportunity facing educators. If indeed we do share a common future, that future depends on activating systems of knowledge across interests and experiences. What it requires, is developing open-mindedness in a way that does not preclude evaluation. That is to say, the ability to understand competing viewpoints and evaluate their legitimacy with respect to a host of valuable outcomes.  An earlier presentation by Terry Chapin at the NRES seminar inspired similar thoughts.  the activities Jennifer developed related to bird migration and understanding all birds are real opportunities to inspire creativity. These activities can both engage broader audiences than is possible through fact sheets or other common ways of directly providing scientific information. This is a benefit both to the bread for people in each wing scientific information a lot broader impacts and to the scientists themselves because it provides new ways of experiencing knowledge and confronting relationships. Jennifer that the forefront of recognizing this connection.  She developed this amazing birdbrain project that introduces migration physiology and behavior to audiences through dance (see video below).   She has a nonprofit organization in New York City called Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance (iLAND ) that sponsors scientists and choreographers to work together to understand urban ecology through movement, science, and mutual inquiry.  This was especially exciting to me given recent work with documentary filmmakers about urban exposure to lead through the pbcookies project and earlier work with photographers at Arizona State University to understand the role of water in the desert.  on a more idiosyncratic level, it was great to hear that iLAND was sponsoring collaborative work that built on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science DIY remote sensing balloon project and was familiar with the urban ecology work of Steward Pickett and and the Baltimore LTER. This bodes well for many of the urban gardening ancillary projects that Kirsten and I have discussed.

If you are a nerd like us, here is the Weik paper citation:

Wiek, A., Withycombe, L., & Redman, C. L. (2011). Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 203-218. doi:10.1007/s11625-011-0132-6


Cool links: Urban forest radio essays

Good friend and collaborator Dr. Kirsten Schwarz presented research at the 2012 Association of American Geographers that focused on the relationships between patterns in the social and economic diversity of a city and the distribution or urban tree canopy. Her work makes comparisons across several U.S. cities that have tree planting initiatives and asks whether the ways these new trees are distributed could reduce environmental inequities and lays the groundwork for future work concerning the ultimate impact of tree location on public health and the services urban ecosystems provide to local residents, and the economic costs and benefits of different planting and maintenance strategies. She passed along TALES FROM URBAN FORESTS , produced by the US Forest Service that is a great resource for people interested in learning about urban forests.  After living in Phoenix, I’m partial to the stories about the impacts of the urban heat island effect on human health, especially in poorer neighborhoods.


Illinois wins grant to study what helps underrepresented minority students succeed in STEM doctoral programs | Graduate College at Illinois

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education covers changes in community college enrollment and their role in society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Full disclosure:  I had shoulder surgery last week, so this post is likely to be a little disjointed (pardon the pun).

I’m really proud to work at an institution that recognizes the value of attracting diverse students to higher education.  NRES has a fellowship to support underrepresented students and there are many university-wide initiatives available to highly qualified students.  It sounds cheesy, but there is real value in diversity.  Ideological diversity is the key to creativity and novel problem identification and solving.  As an interdisciplinary scholar, I am keenly aware of the ability of a new perspective to disrupt assumptions.  Gender, race, class, geography, sexuality, and countless other differences shape our perspective on the world.  Encountering and engaging across world views and life experiences allows the opportunity for greater synthesis and appreciation for the nuances of living on earth.  In the highly political climate we’re living in, it is easy to shut off and shut down ideas that are different.  But isn’t science all about testing assumptions?  I think so.  And I think that is my liberal education talking.  (And by liberal, I mean – open to alternative viewpoints, not necessarily left-leaning.)

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