Back to Educating in the Anthropocene

(Source: The Lancet)

The original caption of this figure reads “The Planetary Health Education Framework.” However, it is similar to the Venn diagram that I discussed in a previous blog (August 4, 2020), which includes climate change, equity, Covid-19, population, and jobs.

Previous series of blogs on the topic of this blog include some of the following (February 25 – March 25, 2013 and May 24June 14, 2016). Additionally, 5 blogs, starting on July 19, 2022 and ending on October 4, 2022 (with some interruptions) have titles that include “Campus as Lab.” This topic is obviously close to my heart and is big enough to withstand frequent revisits. I often mention the need to expand our educational programs in interdisciplinary topics. For reasons that I have mentioned in previous blogs, my involvement with attempts to apply this idea within my school has often gotten me into direct confrontation with campus politics. In many cases, departments view such expansion as competition for resources.

In this blog, I would like to focus on alternatives to interdisciplinary education that do not directly compete with the departmental underpinning of campus structure. All the examples in this blog will come from the school that I am most familiar with, the City University of New York (CUNY). CUNY is a multi-campus consortia institution that I’ve described earlier (September 20, 2022 or just put CUNY into the search box). CUNY’s sustainability efforts were also described earlier.

Like most other academic institutions, the faculty is responsible for all academic matters (The quote below comes from the AAUP, which stands for “American Association of University Professors”):

The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.4 On these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty. It is desirable that the faculty should, following such communication, have opportunity for further consideration and further transmittal of its views to the president or board. Budgets, personnel limitations, the time element, and the policies of other groups, bodies, and agencies having jurisdiction over the institution may set limits to realization of faculty advice.

As the quote emphasizes, the academic responsibility of faculty comes with an important caveat: the administration is responsible for the budget. Since everything that can be done depends on the availability of budget support, this policy negates the exclusivity of faculty in decisions on academic affairs. It also negates the administration’s ability to implement academic decisions that the faculty opposes.

As I have mentioned at many previous opportunities, the Anthropocene describes the major changes that the world is now experiencing. Many of us think that academic institutions should be at the forefront of preparing students to function effectively through these changes. This realization is not yet embedded in the political reality of most countries, though. Below is a commentary from The New York Times about this moment and what the President of the United States did or did not say in the recent State of the Union:

In his State of the Union address, Biden offered no ambitious plans to fix America’s ailing schools. The Republican Party can’t utter a complete sentence on the subject of school reform that doesn’t contain the initials C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory). What we’re seeing here is a complete absence of leadership — even in the midst of a crisis that will literally bend the arc of American history.

This moment of disruption should be a moment of reinvention. It should be a moment when leaders rise-up and say: Let’s get beyond stale debates over charters, vouchers, gender neutral bathrooms and the like. We’re going to rethink the nuts and bolts of how we teach in America.

The consortia structure of CUNY makes it convenient to pioneer changes within the school that reflect the real changes around us. The multi-campus structure enables us to experiment with the impacts of individual changes on a trial basis before instituting any mandates for change throughout the whole university. CUNY is a public university, and like all public institutions, it has to follow the policies of its governing bodies and at the same time lead the academic changes that are in force all around us. It can do this only in a cost-effective way that is consistent with the budgetary priorities of its governing institutions.

One effective way to accomplish these changes in a cost-effective way is to cooperate with the community that surrounds us; that includes the business community:

University-business cooperation has risen to one of the top priorities for many higher education institutions, with its importance mirroring attention from scholars and policy makers worldwide. Despite prolific research in this area, however, few have investigated curriculum-related university-business cooperation or its facilitators. Hence, this study investigates five mechanisms as drivers of business engagement in the design and delivery of the curriculum and the alignment of the curriculum with business needs. Results of a European-wide survey of higher education institution managers show the positive impact of senior management engagement, alumni networks and external communication of university-business cooperation, particularly on business engagement in curriculum design and the curriculum meeting industry needs. The higher education institution’s dedication of resources emerged as irrelevant in this context. The conceptual model is validated across higher education institutions with different levels of curriculum-related cooperation with business and across three countries, leading to implications for management and future research directions.

Below are two examples from my environment that are presently in force:

1.    Joint programs between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Social, and Business

Below is an example of the degree programs of our (Brooklyn College) Department of Business and other departments:

The department has pioneered several multidisciplinary programs with other departments within the college. Business students may pursue a program in earth and environmental sciencesfilmphilosophy, or Puerto Rican and Latino studiesModern language majors in French, Italian, Russian, and Spanish may take a joint program in language and business. In conjunction with the Department of Computer and Information Science, the Department of Business Management also offers a Bachelor of Science in information systems. The department works closely with the Brooklyn College Magner Career Center to provide students with internships, identify job opportunities, and prepare students for their job search.

  1. School Programs that mutually serve students and communities:

I will mention here two successful programs that enjoy community support:

The Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB):

The Institute is a partnership among the National Park Service, the City of New York, and the City University of New York (CUNY) acting on behalf of a Consortium of seven other research institutions: Columbia University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, Stony Brook University, New York Sea Grant, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Our mission is to produce integrated knowledge that increases biodiversity, well-being, and adaptive capacity in coastal communities and waters surrounding Jamaica Bay and New York City.

The Institute is hosted and supported by Brooklyn College working closely with other CUNY colleges.

The Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC)
Below is an example of student activities in this program:

A few months ago, a student walked into AREAC and announced his desire to elevate his interest in vermiculture into a full-fledged research project. Self-motivated students are always welcome in AREAC, and Jorge will be conducting growth rate experiments on Tilapia using Red Wiggler worms to supplement their diet. This is an effective means to recycle food waste and turn it back into food production, and the use of worms as a diet supplement in urban aquaponics systems has already been demonstrated. Jorge hopes to calculate the nutrient and carbon recapture from this practice.

This will be the last blog in my attempts to analyze the needed societal changes to the emerging Anthropocene. Many more examples are at stake here (one suggested in the opening picture is the global healthcare aspect). I will return to this coverage once we have some progress in the formal labeling of our new epoch.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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