Observation – Introduction to Environmental Science

Last week I completed my second observation for this term in ENVR 200: Introduction to Environmental Science. This fairly small (~40 students) seminar-style course is one of the first that students take after deciding to major in environmental science. During the class I observed, the students were participating in a mock UN climate change negotiation that is run through climateinteractive.org. Teams of students were each assigned a different country or group of countries (USA, other developed countries, India, other developing countries, etc.) and after three rounds of deliberations had to achieve an agreement that would limit the increase in global temperature since the industrial revolution to the desired target of 2 degrees C or less. Each team had to agree on targets such as a carbon emissions peak year, a carbon emissions reduction year and an annual reduction rate, deforestation and afforestation efforts, and billions of dollars per year to contribute/receive to/from the global fund for mitigation and adaption. Before even starting the class, the first thing I think the instructor did to get the class’ attention was to make the team of “other developing countries” sit on the floor instead of at their own table like all the other teams. This not only sent an important message that developing countries often don’t have a fair say in climate negotiations, but also peaked students’ interest in the activity when they realized that some of their classmates were sitting on the floor in the back corner of the room.

For this observation in between the two Signature Pedagogies sessions, we were asked to reflect on two questions during our observation. The first was: “When you are observing the practicum take notes under whether the teacher is trying to get the students to think in a particular way, perform in a particular way and/or care/value in a particular way or about particular things? Offer concrete examples.

I definitely thought that the instructor was trying to get students to think in a particular way. The instructor was trying to get students to adopt the way, or to reinforce the view they may have already had, that climate change is a real issue and that a plateauing and eventual decrease of carbon emissions is necessary if the human population is to continue to survive. The instructors wants students to value this cause so that they can promote change in the real world. An obvious piece of evidence for this is that there was no debate on if the 2 degree C target was reasonable, or if countries should invest time and resources into combating climate change. The 2 degree target was introduced in a way that made it seem like the right thing to do. The instructor read from a script which said things like: “When I look around I see people that are younger than me and that will have to deal with the consequences of your decisions.”, “Emissions reductions must be achieved that will stabilize temperature reductions well below 2 degrees C warming.”, and “…share the costs of mitigation and adaptation to fund the most vulnerable nations.”. I don’t see a problem with the instructor imposing their views and the views of climateinteractive.org on the students because it is an environmental science class, so I think students should come into the course assuming that the instructor is going to strong views on combating climate change. Of course, if students don’t agree with the instructor’s views, they should be allowed to express their own views in a diplomatic way while backing up their opinions with evidence.

One thing the instructor did somewhat contradicted the values she was trying to get them to adopt: the instructor never told the students that they were allowed to talk to the other teams instead of just negotiating within their own team. This likely resulted in it taking more time for the teams to reach an agreement, contradicting the value that climate change is an important issue and should be tackled with the best possible plan of action. Halfway through the second round of deliberations, the students discovered on their own that they were allowed to talk to the other teams, but a better agreement (i.e., less of an increase in global temperature) may have been able to be reached if they had spoken to one another sooner.

The second question we were asked to reflect on was: “When you are observing the practicum take notes under what the instructor is doing (or having the students do) to teach the students the practices of the discipline through thinking, performance or caring (could be all)?

The instructor taught students about the practices of the discipline in the following ways:

  • A debate was likely selected as the activity for this class because they tend to get students invested in what they’re arguing for.
  • Having a variety of countries participate in the debate showed students that when assessing climate change you have to look at many different players, not just the big first world countries. Developing countries and countries with power but that have different views from many western countries (e.g., China and India) were included in the debate to get students to think of a variety of view points when considering how to best curb global warming. Speaking to and trying to reach agreements with different parties is a key practice in environmental science.
  • The pre-readings for the class contained mentions of disciplinary values as they stated that greenhouse gas emissions needed to be reduced by half.

This was a really interesting class for me to attend since, although it is not my discipline, I’ve always enjoyed learning about environmental science and seeing how other people view climate change and society’s role in it. I am a TA for a sustainability course in the Integrated Sciences Department, so I’m hoping that I can incorporate this activity into that class next year!

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