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Understanding the Environmental Studies Curriculum

r.graham.barrett's picture

            In  the last couple weeks I have put a lot of thought into how we can teach our class, the student body of the Tri-College Consortium, and society in general to be more ecologically aware of the environment. I have spent most of my time talking about this in my last couple of web papers. In Hurricane Sandy, the Rotunda, and Thomas Berry, I contemplated our class’ reading of Thomas Berry and his idea of restructuring college level education to prioritize awareness of the natural world. Having felt a close proximity with nature while standing in the Haverford KINSC rotunda during a blackout, I concluded that having unplanned real world experiences like this outside of the classroom would be very useful for increasing environmental awareness. As Berry stresses how the entire system needs to be reworked, I started to wonder how his reforms for environmental-awareness education could be implemented for the best results. This came in the form of my next paper, Ecologically Reworking American Politics and Its Dynamics, where I tried to merge Berry’s proposal of a complete educational overhaul and my own idea real-world experiential education. Using Haverford College as a template, I proposed making every student take an environmental studies course as a graduation requirement so as to try and make all of the student body ecologically aware in some form or another. To accommodate for individual student interests, I suggested reorganizing each department so as to include one course acting as one with inter-disciplinary ties to Environmental Studies. Using American Politics and Its Dynamics as a guinea pig, I recommended changes that incorporated outside of class experiences with links to both Political Science and Environmental Studies. With such theories and proposals, I believed that the student body of the Tri-Co could make itself more ecologically knowledgeable.    

            But while I certainly spent a large amount of time devoted to crafting proposals and theories that certainly had merit, I had no way of knowing if such practices could actually be applicable. The ideas that I had been coming up with in my web papers were based on how I, as a student, had been perceiving the lessons of the Environmental Studies Minor. Likewise my proposals had been influenced by Berry, who in his work merely presented his ideas for ecologically-minded course but did not provide examples of how they could realistically be implemented. Because of both of these qualities, I had no way of knowing if my proposals of required, experiential courses would actually work in the current curriculum, let alone if they were actually needed. My problem I realized was that I didn’t have enough information on the Tri-College Environmental Science Minor to be able to make a judgment on the state of ecological lessons in the colleges. The only ones who could really gauge the state of the environmental lessons being received by the student body was the teachers in the Environmental Studies Minor itself. To best truly gauge if the ecological lessons provided at the colleges were sufficient enough, I decided I need to talk to several of the staff to make this judgment effectively or not.

            In deciding to interview several of the Environmental Studies faculty members, I decided that besides asking questions tailored specifically to each interviewee, I needed to keep my questions with very specific qualities. The questions had to geared specifically to be about how exactly each interviewee contributed to the ecological lessons of the course, how they felt the curriculum and the program was being handled, if what students were taking away from the courses was enough to leave a lasting impression, and what future changes they would like to see. Besides these questions, I also wanted to make sure I talked with a variety of Environmental Studies faculty members so as to get several perspectives on the state of the program. Obviously, I needed to interview a faculty member who was actually in the program, particularly one with interdisciplinary ties, so that I could get both an idea of what a department member thinks of how the curriculum is being run. With an interdisciplinary environmental studies faculty member I also meant to compare how my proposal of implementing more interdisciplinary environmental courses could help spread ecological awareness to the student body. Besides this, I also decided it would be important to interview a faculty member who had contributed a course to the program, but wasn’t a member of the Minor’s faculty exactly, so that I could get an academic’s opinion of ecological education in the department from outside the Minor. With these qualities for the questions and interviewees in mind, I eventually chose my interview subjects. The first was Jody Cohen, a Bryn Mawr Education program professor, who previously taught a course in the Perspectives of Sustainability 360 program. The second interviewee was David Ross, an Economics Professor who is a part of the Environmental Studies Minor, as well as a member of the program’s steering committee.

            Starting first with Jody, I opened up our conversation by asking her if she had any environmental science experience in her previous courses before agreeing to contribute to Perspectives of Sustainability with her course Educating for Ecological Literacy. Jody admitted, that no she actually had not had any experience with teaching environmental studies before the 360. She said it was in large part due to her inexperience which made her want to contribute with her course. Being a part of the 360 provided her with the opportunity to come together with her colleagues to talk, brainstorm, and come up with the means for providing students the ability to understanding environmental issues. For Jody, Educating for Ecological Literacy’s intent would be to allow her to pursue her interest in examining the question of what it means to be ecologically literate.  In trying to look at this question, the course itself was meant to be centered around looking at the language of eco-literacy, how we (individuals, as well as society) are a part of ecology, and what role education plays in determining the parts and role within this ecology. Jody meant to look at these topics and questions in terms of educating children, college level students, and the community as a whole. The course material consisted of a range of topics, including on urban gardens, recycling, and other ways in which people directly connect to the environment. There was also a fair amount of outside of the classroom components to Educating for Ecological Literacy, most commonly of which were fieldtrips. The out of class component that took up a huge portion of the class time and energy was a series of Praxis projects that allowed the students to engage in ecological education outside of class. The one project that Jody used as a detailed example in the interview was having several of the students travel to nearby Parkway West High School and work with the students there in creating an urban garden.

            Once Jody was done outlining Educating for Ecological Literacy, I asked about how she thought the course had ended up, whether she thought the students in the course had taken away the lessons she had meant for them to have, and whether there was anything different she wished had happened in the course. As she had previously mentioned before the 360 she had no experience with teaching environmental studies. This contrasted with some of the students coming into the course, as Jody noted that a few of them had a background in environmental studies, hence why they were attracted to the 360 to begin with. As a result of the varying levels of knowledge in particular academic subjects, Jody had the impression that working with one another allowed everyone in the class to grow in understanding about the material, thereby growing in terms of ecological literacy. One thing in particular that Jody was really pleased about was how even after the course was finished, one of her students carried on with the urban garden at Parkway West during a summer internship. Such an experience in Jody’s view provide an opportunity to see the actions of a student’s  ecological education come to fruition, something that couldn’t have been replicated by merely reading texts. As pleased as Jody was with how Education for Ecological Literacy turned out, she did mention there was several things that she wished turned out differently. As satisfied as she sounded about the Praxis projects, she did acknowledge that the downside of centralizing them in the curriculum was that they took up a lot of time and effort to be able to do them. Because of this, the class was unable to focus on actually trying to go outside of class and onto the campus itself, missing an opportunity then to make a connection with the surrounding nature of a college campus. Likewise, Jody repeatedly came back to the idea that she came into teaching the course without enough experience working with environmental studies as she would have liked. Although the course provided her with opportunity for self-teaching, she mentions she would have liked if there had been some sort of cross-disciplinary workshop that would have prepared teachers like her for teaching courses in an Environmental Studies 360. As much as these problems bothered her, Jody still believes that she is learning all the time, so the course did provide an opportunity for her to know only learn about the course material, but also learn the best ways for how material needs to be taught.

            As I finally began to get a sense of how Jody perceived her experiences with the Perspectives of Sustainability 360, I tried to finish off the interview process by asking how this experience might have shaped her views on how the environmental studies program need to be run in the future, as well as what they might mean for her own work in the future. When I asked her what she plans to do now with her new found appreciation for environmental science, Jody expressed a generally interest in doing more with it in the future. As she describes it, her work in the course sparked an interest for her about the subject matter and the wider implications it has for society and education. In her words for describing why particularly she wants to continue working with it in the future, she stated the belief that once a field of knowledge becomes a part of you, it slowly turns into what you want to teach. In that regard, Jody is making plans to be a part of a future environmental study 360 with David and Anne, Ecological Literacy: Economics Literacy, Expression.

As to the current and future state of the environmental studies program, Jody expressed some very passionate beliefs about them. As she experienced firsthand, there is an extremely large and diverse set of knowledge tied into the subject matter of not just ecological literacy but many different types of Environmental Studies. In her view though, educators do not truly understand the depth of this environmental knowledge and as a result at Bryn Mawr administrators view environmental science as more of an add-on to the natural and social sciences instead of giving it the proper focus it needs. To Jody, the current landscape of our educational system is dominated by disciplines created and defined in an era long since passed and unfortunately are preventing the additions of new disciplines from being widely accepted in college curriculums. If Environmental Studies is to be truly considered a viable, these dominating disciplines have to evolve in such a way that brings up Environmental Studies to its level or at least intertwined with the disciplines so as to receive the same amount of exposure that the dominating disciplines do. To remedy this, Jody made a few recommendations for potential changes to the environmental curriculum that she feels would be beneficial. The first of which is to have more incorporation of out of class experiences such as her course’s Praxis projects, as from her experience they showed how her student were able to play a more active role in their ecological education and going beyond the limits of the class curriculum. It would be integral then to have more experiences like this throughout more courses in the program because it would expose students to new ways of thinking about the environmental issues and knowledge. The second change she would like to see is to specifically see each course incorporate make the environmental program more and more of a cross-disciplinary force and as a result have more interdisciplinary environmental courses available. In Jody’s view, this gives more students who are interested in environmental studies more options for courses that are specifically tailored to their interests. Having more environmental studies course then would make it seem like with such a high number of courses and students actively interested in it, the Tri-Co would highly consider turning the program into a fully fledged Major.

            After I talked with Jody, I moved on to interview David Ross, a process which was similarly structured to the interview with Jody. My first few questions were largely focused on what David, as a faculty member within the Minor did for the program. As I soon learned, David first became involved with teaching environmental studies when he began to incorporate environmental issues into his Economics classes in the mid-1990s. This was due in large part to David’s own interest in creating theories about what role environmentalism had to play in economic issues. His actual inclusion into the Tri-College Environmental Studies program was at its inception when he was on Bryn Mawr’s Under-Grad Curriculum Approval Committee that decided to turn the environmental studies concentration into a Minor offered at all 3 colleges. After its establishment, David started to fulfill many roles within the Minor, among which is to act in an advisory role. He serves as a member of the Bryn Mawr Environmental Steering Committee and for this semester is also a member of the Tri-Co Steering Committee as well. As such, I got the impression he has a fair idea on what is currently happening within the curriculum, as well as what potential directions the curriculum could take. An additional advising task that David performs is to act as contact for Economics majors seeking advice on what environmental studies courses they should take to best serve their academic interests.

Besides acting as an advisor, David continues to teach classes in the Environmental Studies Minor. Recently he has taught several Senior Seminars in the Minor, as well as occasionally teaching Environmental Economics, and also his upcoming course Economics of Local Environmental Programs. We spent a great deal of talking about this one particular course in most part due to his teaching of it before in the past but also as it seemed to resemble some of the reformed courses I talked about in my past papers. Like in Jody’s class, the course has a Praxis program component to it, whose main objective is to develop reciprocal relationships between Bryn Mawr’s student body and outside organizations. For Economics of Local Environmental Programs, David tries to develop connections with government agencies and NGO’s. The goal he has for students in the course is for them to use the rudimentary economic information that they had learned in their Introduction courses and apply them to market failures within economies and see how that connects to contemporary environmental issues. From there, students examine particular economic or environmental problems that the partner organizations are confronted with and come up solutions to these problems. The example David used to explain this was a previous partnership with an MIT class in which they worked on possible replacement designs for dealing with Philadelphia’s storm water runoff. Ultimately, David hopes that the course will allow his students to see how the economic tools they are studying can affect local environmental public policy.  

As he is predominantly an economics-focused professor, I thought David would able to give some insight on a program largely dependent on interdisciplinary courses. In his opinion though, it was better not to examine the Environmental Science Minor in terms of inter-disciplinary aspects but instead in a multi-disciplinary light. He believes this in most part because for solving the academic and structural problems presented to the program, it shouldn’t be addressed by those with only partial knowledge of each discipline as they can’t draw from all of the available knowledge of their respective disciples. Rather, David feels that it is in the best interest of each individual within the Environmental Studies program to approach the topics of each of the courses with a full and comprehensive understanding of a particular discipline, as they can be better able to tap into the wealth of knowledge of each discipline. Although he believes this multi-disciplinary style is most predominantly demonstrated thru faculty members, David also says from personal experience this comes from the Minor’s students as well. In the Senior Seminars he has taught in the past he took note of how many of the students were Chemistry, Biology, GIS, and many other majors, and it is thru this wide variety of backgrounds, conversations were lively and engaging, contributing to the success of the seminars. In terms of the disciplinary background of the students and the courses they were choosing in the Minor, David was surprised, but pleased, that everyone tried to have some mix between natural sciences, humanities, and social science for their environmental course load. As happy as he was that students tried to bring some variety in varying academic fields, he stressed a belief though that it’s essential for there to be an emphasis in the courses to concentrate on natural sciences. Doing so would allow students to have a better sense of the scientific method needed to comprehend the environmental science portion of these issues and thus have a farther greater understanding of them. In his concluding remarks about the Environmental Studies program’s multi- and interdisciplinary qualities, he believes it developed these qualities not because the faculty wanted to gear the students towards these but rather because it provided an outlet for a student’s existing interests, so as to cultivate them and expand them ecologically.

As to my final inquiries in the interview in regards to his opinion about the current state of the Environmental Studies, David was very open about these topics and had a lot to say about them. When I mentioned my suggestion to him about making Environmental Studies a requirement, although he didn’t dislike the idea, he was under the impression that it wasn’t necessary. As he saw it, student enrollment in the Minor had been steadily increasing since its days as a concentration, indicating there a widespread interest among the student body to explore environmental topics. As a result of this, he believes that trying to recruit students or force an environmental studies curriculum seemed excessive. As for the program itself, David seemed to be satisfied at how the Minor was coming along. He was pleased to see that the curriculum, particularly at Haverford, was expanding, and that more and more Tri-Co teachers were expressing an interest in contributing. But although he is satisfied with what he is seeing so far, David stated that it was too early in the Minor’s existence to really gauge if the program is achieving success. As the Minor has only been in place for a little over a year, David guessed it wouldn’t be until the fourth year when they could look back and determine if it was a success or not. To ensure that the program can be looked back upon and seen as a success, several things need to happen to the Environmental Studies first to determine that. First, David feels that it is crucial to get student feedback about the courses, both from current students and from graduates. Acquiring such data would mean the faculty would be able to see what students took away from the Minor’s curriculum and how they are using what they learned, thus giving the faculty an idea of what lessons were more influential and which were not. Second, David also believes that the program’s faculty need to continue to have the conversations that led to the creation of the Minor. If faculty members would be able to communicate to each other about what their course work consists of and what is and what isn’t working, there can be a substantial increase in cooperation among the faculty members. Being able to obtain both of these qualities, David concluded that the Environmental Studies organizers would be able to find out what was working in the minor, and what wasn’t and from there be able to tweak the curriculum enough to make the Minor very educationally beneficial.

            Once I had been able to meet and talk with both Jody and Dave, I felt as though I had a basic grasp of the faculties’ experience and interpretation of the Tri-Co’s Environmental Studies program. In going through their responses, I took note of any correlations between their two responses, as both were approaching the program differently, so their experiences were not necessarily the same. One such area of contention between these two came in Jody’s advocacy of interdisciplinary means of handling the Environmental Studies Minor, which seem to steer away from David’s advocacy of a multi-disciplinary style.  In Jody’s opinion, she felt as though the dominating academic disciplines were stifling newer disciplines like Environmental Studies, thereby making her believe the only means to truly allow Environmental Studies to thrive was to change these disciplines enough so that Environmental Statudies could be used to examine and update them. David on the other hand, took a different approach to the dominating disciplines believing that leaving them alone, without any incorporations of other disciplines, allowed them to be used to approach Environmental Studies from a pure state. Likewise another issue that Jody and David seemed to differ on was the expansion of the Minor currently. Jody was under the impression that not enough students were exposed to environmental studies in the curriculum. She thereby agreed with my theory that Environmental Studies had to be expanded in such a way that made it a requirement to take. David though, thought that such an assessment was false, as in his experience more and students were being drawn to the Minor by a natural interest, so attempting to force it upon the student body felt unnecessary. As much as there were sources of contention between the two, both David and Jody managed to reach similar conclusions from their separate experiences. Through incorporating Praxis programs into both of their respective courses, both of them agreed with the assessment that such a teaching style was incredibly beneficial for their students, as it provided the students the opportunity to think about how the subject matter could connect with their own lives. They also both concluded that the process of teaching environmental studies worked as a learning experience that worked both ways. This occurred with how Jody citied how her more ecologically literate students taught her enough to overcome her inexperience and ignorance in the field and how David was able to be influenced and gain insight from students with non-Economics majors despite the heavy economics emphasis. Despite several ideological differences, it seems as though David and Jody would have a lot to discuss with one another about their interpretation of the Environmental Studies Minor and even their points of contentions would make their discussion more stimulating. Seeing how both are planning on being a part of the upcoming 360, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a conversation occured.      

            Through both interviews with Jody and David, I feel as though I got exactly what I had wanted to when I was going into them. Not only had I become more familiar with the Environmental Studies Minor, but I was able compare each of my theories and recommendations increasing environmental awareness with what actually exists presently. Surprisingly, a lot of my recommendations seemed to be very similar to what was already being incorporated into the Minor but it was interesting to also see how they deviated from each other. My idea of encouraging interdisciplinary-based Environmental Studies courses seemed to be a centralized feature within the Minor and it was good to see that these courses were designed to encourage new ways of understanding the subject matter. Although my idea of incorporating out-of-class experiences was included among David and Jody’s courses (as well others I’m assuming), it was a little discouraging that these experiences were structured and provided by the teachers, as opposed to the students stumbling upon these experiences accidentally. Regardless, I did appreciate though the Praxis program’s structure did allow room for student maneuverability in making the experience more personalized, such as Jody’s students who continued working on the urban garden. Of the 3 theoretical recommendations, my suggestion of making an Environmental Studies course requirement was the only one that didn’t match up with the Minor’s current state. If anything making the requirement seemed unnecessary as the interviews suggested that a large percentage of the student body of the Tri-Co were already interested in environmental studies and interest was still growing. If the interviews demonstrated anything to me, it was although my suggested curriculum changes were helpful, they were not needed as similar theories to mine were already being applied. I feel as though in that regard I had put too much emphasis on Thomas Berry’s predictions of ecological doom unless a complete academic overhaul in ecological awareness was implemented. As a result of this I had failed to see that a gradual, organic, and more practical overhaul of the Tri College Consortium’s Environmental Studies program was already taking place. The interviews with David and Jody then were able to illustrate to me that the current Environmental Studies program was moving in the right direction for ensuring that Tri-College’s student body get a satisfactory level of environmental education and ecological awareness.  



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Interview Questions

If anyone is interested attached below is the actual qustions I asked in both Interviews:

Jody Cohen Interview Questions

Did you have any experience working with courses related to Environmental Studies before being one of the teachers involved with running the Perspectives of Sustainability 360?

Could you describe what you decided to teach in Educating for Ecological Literacy? What did you intend for the students in the class to take away from the course?

 Did you feel like you succeeded in making the students in the course feel more ecologically literate? Is there anything you feel that you could have done differently in the class to have increased that level of literacy?

 Do you believe that college students, and members of society in general, have acquired the appropriate amount of environmental knowledge to truly grasp the environmental situation today? Do you think this this level of education is the result of the current environmental education system or from outside

 What are your thoughts on incorporating outside of the class room experiences into college curriculums? Do you believe that having environmental science students take part in these experiences will help them grow as ecological-minded individuals? Is it superior to environmental teaching methods in the classroom or does it serve a supplementary role?

 Now that you are done with the 360, do you feel like there are other ways in which you could contribute to the environmental education of the students in the Tri-Co?

 As a teacher who had to teach students about environmental and ecological education, is there anything you wish you had been taught about environmental issues and studies before agreeing to teach the class? Is it perhaps better for teachers of environmental studies courses who aren’t part of the program to have a particular academic skill set for teaching these courses?

 From what you’ve experienced working in the Environmental Studies program and what you have seen of the courses that are a part of the minor, how would you rate the Tri-College Environmental Science Minor? Does it do a satisfactory job of providing an environmental education to the student body and if not what do you feel needs to be improved?

 If the curriculum of all three colleges in the Tri-College consortium was restructured so as to include having at least a course graduation requirement for environmental-studies what would you recommend so as to make the change provide the appealing and educationally effective for the student body?

David Ross Interview Questions

How would you describe your current role within the Environmental Science Minor? What made you interested in contributing to it?

Could you explain what your plans for teaching Economics of Local Environmental Programs next semester? Is there a particular message or thought process you wish to impart onto the students taking the class?

Do you hope or believe that your course will be able to provide a new perspective on Environmental Issues that other courses in the Minor might not be able to supply as strongly?

As a Minor whose basis is courses that are strongly inter-disciplinary, do you believe that there is a particular academic discipline (social sciences, natural sciences, etc) that provides a greater contribution to the Minor? Can departments with no direct connections to environmental studies still provide interesting new ways to look at the subject?

Would you say that teaching environmental studies via an economics course provides a certain appeal that draws students who wouldn’t normally be interested in Environmental Studies? Is providing a wide choice of interdisciplinary courses the best way to draw more students into taking courses in the minor?

Given the current format of the Minor, would you say you are satisfied with how the Tri-College Environmental Science Minor has been operating within the curriculum? Do you believe the student body has received an adequate environmental education? If you’re not completely satisfied with the how the Minor is run, are these issues minor and easily fixed or does there need to be a great overhaul of the program’s format?

If the curriculum of all three colleges in the Tri-College consortium was restructured so as to include having at least a course graduation requirement for environmental-studies what would you recommend to be done to make the Minor more appealing to a greater number of students. Could you think of what such a reconstruction would mean in terms of incorporating more interdisciplinary courses into the Minor?   

 Can you think of any particular aspects of the Minor (the format, the courses, the faculty) that you would like to see some changes in the future?