The Real Deal
Dickinson ramps up sustainability studies
April 1, 2010
CESE Director Neil Leary has more than 15 years of experience in climate-change research, assessment, education and program management. He has directed international programs for global change assessment and capacity building in which several hundred scientists from more than 60 countries participated.
In January, Neil Leary, director of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, talked with Senior Editor Sherri Kimmel about the work he began here in fall 2008. An edited transcript follows.
When you arrived at Dickinson, the college recently had included sustainability as a key tenet of its strategic plan and developed a pretty robust approach to sustainability through energy-saving practices and efforts such as the Commission on the Environment. You were brought in to infuse sustainability into the curriculum. What interested you in taking on a role like this?
Everything that I read about the college indicated that Dickinson was actually very serious about this, that this was not a superficial, just-following-the-pack kind of thing. I was very much interested in a school that had that kind of an ambition—building on a very strong program but also recognizing that there is a lot more that can and should be done.
You said that a lot of schools are claiming, these days, to be green or sustainable. How do we stand out? Are we the real deal?
Well, I think we’re the real deal. For one, we have a good, strong grounding to build on. We’re one of the first schools to have begun programs in environmental science and environmental studies. We have faculty in other departments who have been teaching courses that contribute to those programs. We have strong extracurricular programs with the watershed-monitoring group ALLARM and a very successful community-garden program that students had some role in initiating and which provided the impetus to start a College Farm. The College Farm is an integral part of the food-procurement system, Dining Services, and also is integrated into the educational program. Faculty are interested in finding ways to connect what they’re teaching, what they’re researching, to sustainability. But sustainability goes much broader than environmental protection. It’s looking at social issues, equity issues, economic issues—seeking to understand if and how it is possible to improve the well-being of people on a sustained basis without damaging the social, economic and environmental systems on which modern societies depend. It’s a very rich area in which the college is doing a great deal.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Valley & Ridge program that you began last year?
The idea is to get faculty together to use each other as resources to figure out how we teach about problems of human development and our interactions with the natural world in a very place-based orientation—thinking about the problems in our particular region of the world. How do these different issues of environmental deprivation, poverty issues, social-justice problems interrelate within our region, and how can we go about teaching our courses in ways that students get a very rich understanding of what the problems and the potential solutions are? It’s a program that we’re going to continue to do as long as we have faculty interest.
Can you tell me about a few new courses that have come out of the first Valley & Ridge study groups?
Going Green: Challenges and Opportunities is a course that Michael Fratantuono, associate professor of international business & management, and Ken Shultes ’89, interim vice president for campus operations, co-taught. They looked at Dickinson College as a case study—here’s an educational institution that has decided to change its approach in a fairly substantial way, embracing sustainability as an important part of its core mission. Is this an effective business strategy, and how can we go about this so we can be real leaders in this area? They used the campus as sort of a laboratory for their studies. (See Page 8 for more on the course.)
Amy Farrell in American studies is doing a course on how consumerism plays a role in media and communications—how Americans interpret and incorporate these consumerist ideals into their behaviors or reject them and go in other directions. We’ve got courses in religious studies—one in Buddhist environmental ethics that Dan Cozort will be teaching. Andrea Lieber has been incorporating environmental and sustainability ethics into her Judaic-studies courses. Other departments that have participated and produced some new/revised courses include policy studies, psychology and economics.
And of course there’s the yearlong course, Kyoto to Copenhagen, that you and your staff member Sarah Brylinsky are leading.
We used Valley & Ridge as a time to help plan that course. The focus is on climate change, but it included an examination of physical science, looking at the potential impacts of climate change on ecosystems and biological systems and also on human society. We looked at different kinds of policy responses to try and control the risks from climate change and at ethical issues. The main focus was the negotiations leading up to and at the conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Copenhagen in December. Our 15 students were there to watch in all the messy detail and glory how complex, how difficult that process is but also to get a very sophisticated understanding of what the priorities are of the different parties. We came back with an uncounted number of hours of video and audiotape interviews with delegates. Over spring term, the students will review and analyze the interviews and produce different outputs from this research. (See Pages 19-21 for student reflections on the experience.)
Let’s talk about something else that’s really going to boost your work with the curriculum—a nearly half-million-dollar grant from NASA. Dickinson was the only liberal-arts college chosen for this grant that will enable us to improve teaching and learning about global climate change. I find it really interesting that you included our partner community colleges in this three-year project that begins this spring.
NASA has been interested for quite a while in extending its reach into higher education amongst two-year colleges. I was aware of articulation agreements that we have with a number of community colleges, particularly ones that have strong honors programs, whose students could come here to Dickinson [as juniors]. It will bring in a rich set of ideas from faculty from these two-year colleges. We’re eager to learn from them and take on board their ideas for how we might evolve this curriculum. We’re interested in developing courses that can be taught at these two-year schools for which credit can be transferred when students come to Dickinson. We’ll work with faculty from these schools—running some training programs and workshops—to develop new courses together. It can increase the number of students who will come to Dickinson from these schools. It will make Dickinson stand out as a leader in education within the region on climate change—it’s not just something that we’re doing for our students, but we’re going to be helping other institutions to figure out how to teach about this very important topic.
The project has an amazing potential for outreach.
Yes, 60,000 to 70,000 students attend the institutions that are part of the grant, so we have a potentially very large reach that can influence the studies of a very large group of students.
It would seem that even for students who only did a two-year degree, maybe in a green occupation, that this would be of great benefit.
Many of these schools offer some courses that are more hands-on—that build a variety of tangible skills, for example, improving energy efficiency or working with renewable energy, that are important for our society as we try to transition toward more sustainable practices. Those are courses that we don’t offer at Dickinson, and we could look at how some of our students could learn those skills in a context that makes sense for a liberal-arts degree. One of the things I’ve seen in the short time I’ve been at Dickinson is a lot of our students really have a hunger for learning some more-tangible skills. They may want to live in a home that is energy efficient or has a low impact on the environment. How do they do that? We need to be creative and innovative, thinking how we can incorporate that into the liberal-arts approach to education that we have at Dickinson.