Clark Creates Common Language For Sustainability

The Declaration, Vol 1, No 3: September – December 1996  [Curriculum]

Sometimes the biggest initiatives are incubated in the smallest places. Clark University, an institution of 2000 students in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, is taking bold strides in uniting academic disciplines, faculty, and students to address critical issues of environment and sustainability. In 1994, Clark launched the Environmental School (ES), linking the life, physical, and social sciences with the arts and humanities to establish a curriculum that engenders environmental literacy across the campus.

Shared experience, common goals

The ES offers the opportunity to gain broad liberal arts education focusing on the environment while acquiring professional depth through study in a selected departmental major. Fifteen departments, including Art History, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English, Environmental Science and Policy, Geography, Government, History, International Development, Philosophy, Physics, Sociology, and Studio Art, have joined forces to design and implement the four-year undergraduate initiative. Thus, students with such diverse interests as physics and philosophy, poetry and politics join in a common quest to understand how humans can develop and prosper while sustaining the Earth for future generations.

“Our goal is to develop individuals who deeply understand the human-nature interaction from the perspective of the physical and life sciences, humanities, and social sciences; who have skills and knowledge to define a problem holistically and to analyze it from multiple disciplinary perspectives; and who understand the role of their profession in addressing environment-related matters,” explains Dr. Halina S. Brown, ES director. “They also need to have a common language with specialists in other disciplines, and to be at ease with different disciplinary approaches,” she points out. “This is largely a knowledge problem and thus a province of liberal arts education to address.”

Expanding environmental education

As Brown and her colleagues planned the new school, they found two predominant models of environmental education at the post-secondary level: an environmental major anchored in a traditional discipline or cluster of similar disciplines, such as earth science or environmental engineering; and a multidisciplinary collection of courses with an environmental theme that culminates in degrees such as environmental studies.

According to Brown, the first model tends to narrow environmental concerns to those of the disciplines involved, often excluding broader perspectives and themes. Its graduates are good problem-solvers in their specialty but are not well-equipped to address complex social-environmental problems. The second model generally provides more educational breadth and environmental awareness, but often falls short in creating coherent intellectual integration among the involved disciplines and in establishing a bridge between those disciplines and a student’s area of specialization.

“The common thread in both of these types of education is their appeal to students who want to become environmental professionals either in technical or policy arenas,” says Brown. “Unfortunately, their appeal to students who want to become physicians, lawyers, journalists, business managers, etc., is limited. Therefore, based on number of graduates alone, the combined impact of these two types of education on society will always be limited,” she explains.

Brown believes it was in response to these limitations that a third approach has emerged in recent years which attempts to “impregnate all college courses with an environmental perspective” by helping faculty across disciplines to introduce environmental issues into their teaching material. This approach, explains Brown, is built on the premise that reconciling economic development with social development and environmental protection requires professionals, citizens and leaders in all walks of life to posses a fundamental understanding of how the physical Earth functions, how societies interact with each other and the Earth, how institutions and individuals comprehend and behave, and how human thought and action is interrelated to the natural world.

While she agrees with the premise of the third approach, Brown believes that “it is not bold enough to affect the necessary fundamental change in how the next generation of college graduates conceptualize their relationship to the natural environment, how they reconcile their professional and personal loyalties with concerns for the Earth’s inhabitants, and how they approach complex problems requiring holistic assessment and sophisticated analytical skills.”

Targeting students and faculty simultaneously

The Environmental School was designed specifically to build on the strengths of existing educational models while addressing their perceived shortcomings. “In the process we aim to take a major evolutionary step in defining environmental education at the post-secondary level,” Brown announces.

“To achieve this, we have moved beyond a menu of specialized disciplinary courses and beyond raising consciousness among faculty. Our strategy encompasses a brand new core interdisciplinary curriculum according to a different set of educational objectives and links students and faculty from different departments in a common endeavor.”

Students are engaged not only as pupils, but also as stewards for the enhancement of the ES. “Clark students are known for activism,” Brown points out, “and their voice is key.” Students launched the university’s recycling initiative, were involved in the development of Clark’s energy co-generation plant, and take an active role in community improvement projects. Their input was solicited in the initial planning phase for the ES, and two representatives elected from the ES student body now serve on the school’s steering committee. Brown credits the first two entering classes with providing critical feedback that has improved both course structure and content.

Students have also been integral to bringing new departments into the interdisciplinary effort. “This initiative attracts academic achievers as well as the intellectually curious. Their belief in the value of this kind of education is pushing the more hesitant departments on campus to get involved and keeps the administration accountable for their commitment to the effort,” notes Brown.

Interdisciplinary core, disciplinary specialties

The core curriculum consists of eight interdisciplinary courses. Four are required for all ES students: a first-year seminar on Environment and Culture, as well as Earth Systems Science, Ecological Systems, and Environmental Ethics. The other four are chosen from seven interdisciplinary electives that address quantitative methods and technical skills, social sciences, visual arts, and humanities. The final requirement is an interdisciplinary group research colloquium, “Our Common Future,” conducted in the senior year. Currently, 15 majors can be pursued within the ES and more will be added in the future. Many of the ES core courses are co-taught by faculty from at least two different disciplines to ensure interdisciplinary content and methodologies.

“The program is rigorous,” says Brown. “Students must complete the core ES curriculum and meet all requirements for their chosen major. In addition, they take two specially designed advanced disciplinary courses that satisfy the participating major and are thematically linked to the ES mission.” These include such options as: Environmental Chemistry (chemistry), Studies in Landscape (English), Environmental Law (government), Land Degradation (geography), Ecology and Economy in the Third World (international development), Sacred Space (studio art), and Energy & Environment (physics). These advanced courses focus on the theme of human-nature interaction interpreted in the context of the particular field of study. While some of these courses were in existence, many have been revised or are newly developed.

Creating a new lens

“I’m getting a lot of different views that I wouldn’t have without the interdisciplinary focus,” says Jessica Barber, a second year student from Vermont who has declared a double major in biology/environmental science & policy. “I was attracted to the school because I want to work with animals and I felt a policy perspective and environmental background would be important to understand sustaining animal habitats. In particular, the environmental ethics class really pointed out the many sides it is necessary to consider when making decisions and taking action.”

Madhav Ranjan, a second year student from New Delhi, India is majoring in computer science. He chose to attend the ES because of its emphasis on applied field work and the opportunity to combine his dual career focus. “I’m interested in computer software development and its applications to environmental problems,” Ranjan explains. “The ES provides a complete grounding in environmental issues and there is a balance between science and humanities, between the classroom and field research. I have the opportunity to apply my learning to real-world challenges and I’m exposed to the ways that computer science can interface with other disciplines.”

Sophomore Jennifer Cronin of Massachusetts concurs. “I’m interested in environmental education at the middle school level and I looked into many environmental programs. The ES offers an all-encompassing approach that is incredibly unique,” she says. “I enjoy studying with fellow students who’s major focus is not the environment. Gaining views on environmental challenges from different disciplines provides a clearer picture of the reality of an issue.”

Establishing an institutional vision

During 1993-1994, Clark went through a period of vigorous planning and program development, establishing a new academic and financial plan and creating a clear institutional vision geared toward education for the 21st century.

Roger E. Kasperson, Clark provost, a recognized environmental scholar and an architect of the Environmental School, notes, “The ES fulfills the very essence of what Clark sought in new strategic directions. . . Building on the remarkable constellation of environmental talent in our faculty in a bold new departure in environmental education, we sought a structured, no-nonsense, interdisciplinary program that intellectually confronts the hard questions facing sustainability goals. . . . We sought, in short, a program designed to create the next generation of environmental leaders.”

Capitalizing on small size, big strengths

“Provost Kaperson’s involvement was critical to our success,” says Brown. “Senior support for institutional renewal provided a window of opportunity for the faculty to conduct self-evaluation and develop a proposal that instigates collective change.”

Yet, as Brown points out, senior leadership is not enough to carry the momentum. “Faculty commitment was absolutely essential. To introduce and maintain such a major initiative requires organic, grassroots involvement from faculty across departments with support from the top.”

She acknowledges issues unique to a smaller institution which helped pave the way for such a collaborative effort. Size and a deep tradition of faculty governance was a benefit in many ways. According to Brown, it allowed greater flexibility in institutional systems, less bureaucracy in the approval process, better access to professors, and a more fluid exchange of ideas.

“In a smaller institution it is easier to penetrate disciplinary boundaries,” she notes. “That, and the fact that 25 percent of Clark’s 175 faculty were already involved in environmental teaching and research made a big difference in our progress,” Brown adds.

The institution has a long tradition of studying human-environment interaction. Clark’s internationally acclaimed geography department began in 1921. Environmental psychology was pioneered at Clark in the 1970s. The Cartographic Technology and Geographic Analysis Labs developed a computer software program used worldwide to monitor global climate change. Clark’s environmental major has existed for more than 20 years. The George Perkins Marsh Institute was the first university research center dedicated solely to the study of human systems affects on the environment. Its library of environment and global change materials draws researchers from across the U.S. In addition, Clark’s International Development Program has set up grassroots projects to improve resource management in developing countries in Africa and South America. The university also became a Talloires Declaration signatory in 1995 at the inaugural ceremony for the new Environmental School.

Facing challenges

“Not everything has gone smoothly,” Brown concedes. “Despite flexibility in many systems, we underestimated the effort needed to change some administrative procedures,” she laments, jokingly rolling her eyes. “We also underestimated the sheer level of time and effort required for faculty to develop so many new courses and to find intellectual common ground.”

A core group of faculty representing six departments spearheaded efforts throughout the initial year of planning for the ES. In addition, Brown spent a lot of time advocating to other departments and politicking to broaden the interdisciplinary scope.

“It was an ongoing challenge,” she admits. “The ES, by its nature, is a labor-intensive endeavor with specially designed courses, co-teaching, and time- consuming student advising. That can be intimidating to small departments. We continue to place special emphasis on faculty buy-in and ongoing participation. Bimonthly faculty meetings help to maintain open communication across the departments.”

Another issue was reducing teaching loads for faculty to devote time to developing new team-taught and interdisciplinary courses. “This is an issue in universities of any size,” Brown points out. “Clark supported faculty efforts with stipends and resources to hire additional teaching assistants.”

There are limits to the growth of the ES that arise from Clark’s teaching philosophy and the very nature of the ES curriculum, including small class size, multiple field trips, and emphasis on field and laboratory work.

“These are all highly resource intensive and difficult to manage with a large number of students,” notes Brown. “We would like to open the ES courses to the entire student body, but classes often fill early with ES students before anyone else can register. On the other hand, there are benefits to the limits to growth-it’s easier to create a sense of community among students and faculty.”

Investing in the future

Then there is the issue of money. Brown admits the ES involves a high cost to the institution. “This kind of endeavor can’t be accomplished on a shoe- string budget,” she remarks. “Money certainly doesn’t buy faculty commitment, but it can buy more faculty time as well as field research and trips, internships, and social events that bond students and faculty. It’s also needed to support student scholarships.”

Is the economic investment worth it? “This is not a close call,” maintains Kasperson. “We can already see an enhanced capability to bring outstanding undergraduates to Clark for this program. The ES has clearly taken us on an important stride in overall university excellence. . . Donor and foundation support is already apparent.”

To date, one faculty chair has been endowed and three scholarships have been established. The university continues to conduct fundraising to support the school. “We are fortunate to have leaders willing to make investments in a vision that potentially has a long payback period,” Brown notes.

It is anticipated that by the year 2000 the school will have 200 students. To date 87 students have enrolled in the ES and the first class will graduate in 1999, ready to apply their interdisciplinary knowledge and skills in the new century.

Despite the possibility of long-term payback there are immediate benefits. “The ES effort has strengthened the sense of community at Clark; that equals a stronger institution,” says Brown. “And that translates into better education for our students, better education for the future.”

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