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'Students want more sustainability'

Can curricula save the planet? At Concordia’s 2014 Teaching and Learning Festival, the answer was a resounding yes
February 19, 2014
By Lucas Wisenthal

Biology professor James Grant at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Festival
Biology professor James Grant at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Festival: “This is a chance for students and faculty to design the courses we should actually be teaching.” | Photo by Concordia University

It would be an understatement to say that Thomas Homer-Dixon — the opening keynote speaker at Concordia’s 2014 Teaching and Learning Festival — is concerned about humanity’s current trajectory.

“I don't know what's going to happen 80 years into the future, but I know enough to be quite worried,” the bestselling author and interdisciplinary academic told a full house at the D.B. Clarke Theatre on February 5. He cited the polar vortex, recent winter storms and changing global temperatures as examples.

The theme of this year’s three-day festival, which ran until February 7, was The Power of Curriculum: Sustainability — Learning — Innovation. In addresses and panel discussions, more than a dozen academics shared their thought-provoking ideas with the event’s 600 attendees.

“One of our main objectives was to look at innovative ways to explore how environmental events are changing our world. This is something that affects every discipline,” says Janette Barrington, acting director of the Concordia Centre for Teaching and Learning Services.

“For example, what policies will be required to curb rising temperatures? How will businesses adapt to new regulations, and what are some businesses already doing to adapt? These are questions we need to prepare our students to answer.”

Homer-Dixon is the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario; his books include The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down (2006).

He believes that it would be misguided to try to get the world back to the way it was. Instead, we should work with what we have and build our resiliency.

“I'm concerned that what humankind will be faced with later this century is a really ferocious triage,” Homer-Dixon said, suggesting that scarcity and environmental factors will force us to make difficult choices about the people — and even the cities — we save. He encouraged participants to think about their children and grandchildren.

That idea struck a cord with Barrington. “It made me think how I would answer the question, ‘What did you do to solve the climate change and biodiversity crises?’ Let's hope one of the answers will be that I helped professors develop a curriculum that gave students the tools to think about how to prioritize and move toward solving the most pressing issues of our time.”

How can education prepare the next generation for these challenges? The festival’s speakers explored many possible facets over the next two days.

Higher education: an infinite game

Peter G. Brown, a geography professor at McGill University, echoed some of Homer-Dixon’s points during his presentation of February 6.

“We’re moving into a different geological era,” he said. “We have to think really hard about our place on the planet and our place in the universe.”

Brown took aim at the Judeo-Christian narrative that colours our culture. It has, he said, wrongly led us to believe that the Earth was God’s gift to humanity. Because of this, we have treated the planet as something to be exploited, and there has emerged a disconcerting imbalance between humans and other species.

But while education may have perpetuated these ideas, it can also counteract their effects. Brown listed a series of what he called “orphan disciplines — economics, finance, law, governance and ethics” that he encouraged academia to rethink.

According to Brown, economics is premised on ideas that are 200 years old, and has failed to take into account the fundamental connection between the economy and the Earth. “This is, in my view, a crime that has imperiled the planet and the lives of millions.”

If universities hope to mold responsible citizens, these are the sorts of concepts they must address, Brown said. “Higher education is an infinite game, both discovering and improving the human condition.”

A world fundamentally altered by humans

With that idea in mind, political science professor Peter Stoett; Monica Mulrennan, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment; Ketra Schmitt, an associate professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society; and biology professor James Grant took part in “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Water in Curriculum,” a February 6 panel discussion.

The goal was to use water as a single interdisciplinary topic to address one of the most complex aspects of life on Earth.

“We live in a world fundamentally altered by the presence of humans,” Stoett said. “How can professors teach the topic from a perspective of creating a sustainable future not only for humans, but for all life? How will we deal with water shortages? What about declining fish stocks? Habitat destruction? Water pollution? Flooding? All of these are water-related topics and they all touch disciplines differently.”

That reality prompted Stoett — who is interested in the pollution, particularly from plastics, to which our bodies of water have been subjected — to develop an online course in global environmental politics, something he is working on now.

Mulrennan, meanwhile, is interested in an indigenous perspective on water, which paints the resource as a “sacred gift.” To examine it in that light would “contribute to the decolonization of the university,” she said. “I think water is a really important medium for travelling together, for learning together.”

For Schmitt and Grant, water lends itself to a range of educational initiatives. “It’s naturally an interdisciplinary subject,” Schmitt said.

The audience of 20 or so students, graduates and professors was enthusiastic at the prospect of a course that would examine water through an interdisciplinary lens.

To Grant, this sort of panel discussion — and, indeed, the sustainability-themed Teaching and Learning Festival as a whole — marks a step in the right direction for Concordia.

“The students want more sustainability,” he said. “This is a chance for students and faculty to think about and talk about and design the courses we should actually be teaching.”

The fact that Concordia’s Teaching and Learning Festival encouraged collaboration across faculties made it all the more important, Grant said. “The way of education for the future is to really think broadly.”

About the 2014 Teaching and Learning Festival

Growing student interest in sustainability and its integration in curricula prompted the Sustainability Action Fund to partner with Concordia's Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS) and the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability to co-organize this year’s Teaching and Learning Festival.

From Wednesday, March 5 to Friday, March 7, Concordia is hosting e.SCAPE, a conference on technology-integrated learning that will include presentations, workshops and demonstrations. The event is open to faculty, staff and students.

Are you a faculty member at Concordia? Submit a proposal to the Curriculum Innovation Fund, which supports faculty in exploring innovative revisions to program curricula and course design, as well as substantial changes to pedagogy.

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