Sustainable Development in a Russian Context

The Declaration, Vol 1, No 2: August 1996  [Curriculum]

At the Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology (MUCT) in Moscow, students and faculty are introducing interdisciplinary learning and community education about sustainable development into the educational dialogue in Russia.

MUCT’s environmental work takes place under the umbrella of the Department for the Problems of Sustainable Development, which was established in 1995 to address curriculum development needs in this subject area. Motivation for its founding came from Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

The department, chaired by Dr. Natalia P. Tarasova, offers two courses that are mandatory for all MUCT students: “Living in the Environment” for undergraduates, and “Risk Assessment and Risk Management” for graduate students. In addition, the university offers several elective courses in sustainable development.

MUCT also translates textbooks and educational materials into Russian. Tarasova explains that books are chosen based on their interdisciplinary focus, their relevance to readers, and an “element of fun” that is hard to find in existing Russian texts. Funding for several of MUCT’s sustainability curriculum projects comes from UNESCO.

“In September we presented Chemistry in the Community, one of the best textbooks for non-chemists,” Tarasova said, “It was recommended for secondary schools by the Russian Ministry of Education. Now we have started a project with the University of York in Great Britain to translate and adapt Salters’ Chemistry, a combination of chemistry, physics and social issues for advanced high school students.”

Student participation

Recently, the department ran a student competition for the best paper on the problems of human interaction with the environment. First-place winner Andrei Severney’s work was entitled, “Dioxins: The Most Dangerous Substances in the World.”

“For decades in the USSR the dioxin problem was carefully swept under the carpet by the Ministry of Defense and the KGB. Therefore, the real scale of dioxin threat in Russia remains unclear,” Severney writes. According to him, a Russian government investigation into the chemicals has been delayed since 1991 because the Ministry of Finance has calculated the necessary funds at 7.5 billion rubles, or $3 million US dollars, and it is therefore too expensive.

Building local skills for sustainability

In addition to its on-campus work, MUCT conducts workshops for secondary school teachers in the Moscow region and as far away as Siberia. The three-day workshops use lectures, simulation games, field trips, and case studies to illustrate applied learning in action.

Since September 1995, Tarasova has participated in four regional workshops, including one on the Kola Peninsula and one in Siberia, where the remoteness of the location makes it extremely difficult for teachers to obtain information and to interact. “In Siberia people are more open and ready for changes,” Tarasova explains. “They ask for extra lectures and for advice in life situations. For example, once I was asked if it is worthwhile to leave the town because of the air pollution. Because it has become too expensive to travel, they have no access to the latest [trends] in education and they are grateful for assistance.”

Tarasova reaches far and wide to find the resources required to address sustainable development in Russia’s diverse settings. For example, Mark Dorfman and Marian Wise, chemical hazards prevention specialists with the New York-based research company INFORM, collaborated on the Siberia workshop with Tarasova. Held in the industrial town of Krasnoyarsk, the workshop focused on source reduction and attracted 29 representatives from local government, industry, education, and the community.

Aiming to equip local participants with the tools to educate others, the workshop was designed to provide a comprehensive overview of source reduction practices and programs. Using the experiences of American industry, government, and grass-roots organizations as examples, sessions focused on implementation strategies, management, planning, and public policy options for source reduction.

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of our work in Krasnoyarsk was the opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people who took a keen interest in the issues we were dealing with,” says Dorfman. “At multi-day conferences, for example, people often leave early. However, participants in Krasnoyarsk not only stayed till the very end but were active and involved throughout. The other exciting and challenging aspect of our experience was that at the beginning of the workshop, we sensed an air of doubt among certain participants regarding the value of source reduction. But by the end, these same people were some of the most vocal supporters of source reduction efforts in Krasnoyarsk.”

Each participant received the Russian translation of INFORM’s “Citizens’ Guide to Promoting Hazardous Waste Reduction,” prepared by MUCT. The materials also included an overhead slide presentation of the findings of INFORM’s 1992 report, “Environmental Dividends: Cutting More Chemical Wastes.” As explained in INFORM’s report, the workshop was divided into four major sections:

1- an in-depth description of the concept of industrial source reduction, and its environmental and economic benefits;
2- source reduction in the private sector: the experience of US industry;
3- source reduction in the public sector: the experiences of U.S. federal and state government and NGOs; and
4- potential for source reduction in Krasnoyarsk.

Action outcomes

In conclusion of the workshop, participants split into groups by sector: education, government, industry, and non-governmental organizations. They discussed steps that might be taken within each sector to promote source reduction. They envisioned how groups could implement these steps, how they would interact with each of the other sectors, and what actions and resources they would like to see each other commit.

For example, government representatives suggested establishing source reduction as the number one strategy for environmental management; creating public information databases, and establishing source reduction pilot projects for a cross-section of industrial facilities in Krasnoyarsk, as well as the development of source reduction regulations.

Representatives from the Krasnoyarsk industrial community said information about industrial emissions, wastes, and source reduction activities should be available to the public. They identified tracking wastes and toxics as important to enable industrial engineers, plant managers and employees to pinpoint and implement source reduction strategies, and they indicated a willingness to work with government and citizens groups on the implementation of information systems and the promotion of source reduction.

Non-governmental organizations stressed communication and organization outcomes. They were most interested in conducting source reduction training for community leaders; organizing meetings between plant officials and local citizens; creating a series of special television programs with a sole focus on environmental issues, including toxic waste issues; and establishing an NGO center in the Krasnoyarsk region where all organizations could come together to share information and discuss options for change.

Educators said it was important to make source reduction a part of environmental and scientific curricula, beginning with the education of teachers. They suggested creating study methods and projects that will give students hands-on experience, and they wanted government officials to guarantee free access to information and the creation of textbooks on environmental pollution, including strategies for change such as source reduction.

Building on lessons learned

Educational visions like those generated by teachers at the workshop feed back into MUCT’s curriculum and institutional practices.

MUCT became a signatory of the Talloires Declaration in 1991. Pavel Sarkisov, the president, signed and endorsed the document on behalf of the institution, joining an international movement to promote environmental literacy.

Tarasova said the signature represents the university’s long-standing commitment to environmental issues. For more than 25 years, MUCT has been promoting environmental protection in Russia. The university has been a leader, launching the first of several academic departments dedicated to environmental management and sustainable development in the country including: the Department of Recycling (1970), the Department of Industrial Ecology (1984), the Faculty of Environmental Engineering (1989), and the Department for the Problems of Sustainable Development (1995).

Practical, applicable education

Tarasova and INFORM’s Dorfman stress the importance of engaging community leaders and making sustainability education practical. “As far as advice for others embarking on such projects [in Russia],” Dorfman says, “I would suggest that they . . . make sure that the design and execution of the workshop best fits the context in modern day Russia.”

MUCT’s experiences validate this approach and show that educational curricula based on local context is critical to empower businesses, community groups, and government to make ecologically sound decisions and take action for sustainable development.

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