Profs learn new ways to teach sustainability
By Alison Hewitt from UCLA Today
Political Science Professor Miriam Golden wanted to teach her students more about environmental and sustainability issues, but to add these to her curriculum would mean redesigning a syllabus, creating new homework and rewriting exams — work that required time and money she didn’t have.
Then last year, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) and UCLA’s Sustainability Committee launched a program to help faculty from any department integrate sustainability into their courses. The program came with support from departments like the Office of Instructional Development (OID), which offered $1,200 grants to professors who accepted the challenge.
Golden is now one of a crop of profs revising their classes, several of whom will share their experiences and offer tips to other interested faculty at a two-hour workshop on Nov. 15. In winter quarter when Golden next teaches her class on developing countries, “Political Institutions and Economic Development,” it will include a week devoted to environmental issues like energy use and groundwater.
“I think climate change is the largest global challenge to ever face the human race, and we need to help students understand the social and political implications,” Golden said. “But in a class like mine, if I change a week of reading, I have to change a lot of data sets and rewrite the homework assignments. That’s the kind of thing I can only do if I can pay a grad student to assist me.”
The goal of the new program is to reach students outside of explicitly environmental classes, said Cully Nordby, IoES’s academic director. UCLA faculty from engineering, earth and space sciences, and political science are among those who have taken the leap. Similar programs have been successful at other universities, Nordby noted, especially with the incentive of grant money, an option IoES hopes will remain available.
“Being aware of how climate change impacts our lives is part of being a responsible citizen, and you can’t look at environmental issues without the context of other disciplines,” Nordby said. “Integrating sustainability into existing classes, rather than creating new classes, is a cost-effective way of increasing sustainability literacy for a much broader segment of the student population.”
Among those who will present at the workshop is Earth and Space Sciences Associate Professor Jonathan Aurnou. In his introduction to oceanography class, he already covered fluid dynamics and the Coriolis effect. The next time he teaches the class, he will show the video he made that illuminates these concepts by demonstrating how they interact to create the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of floating trash that covers an estimated 5,000 kilometers.
Aurnou has used his OID grant to make this video and others to create a library of educational films that teach fluid mechanics, fluid physics and fluid dynamics with examples related to sustainability. Some of his colleagues have already begun using his videos as well, he said.
“It’s important to tie this general knowledge about things like fluid dynamics into the students’ lives,” Aurnou said. “When the topics turn to sustainability, many of the students perk up. It piques their interest, and that’s crucial.”
For David Paige, also in faculty in Earth and Space Sciences, the IoES program and OID grant made it possible to expand a class that already explored sustainability. In “Earth’s Energy: Diminishing Fossil Resource and Prospects for a Sustainable Future,” a field trip to the Mojave Desert was a popular option but only available to a limited number of students. Many students said the trip, to see conventional and alternative energy installations like wind and solar farms or natural gas facilities, was their favorite part of the class, Paige said. Now, the grant covers transportation costs so that Paige and his colleagues can allow everyone in the class to make the trip.
“A lot of students thought it was the high point of the whole class to see this stuff happening in real time,” Paige said. “And working with IoES allowed us to network with similarly-minded faculty at UCLA, because we had no idea about all the other great sustainability programs and classes in other departments. And faculty are doing great things.”