Innovation and Integration in Student Centered Environmental Science

Erin Lane, Earth and Ocean Science, The University of British Columbia

There is increasing awareness and concern regarding pressing environment issues such as climate change, waste management, food security, and global energy supply and demand; these issues require the training of a new generation of critical thinkers with a sound scientific background.

The University of British Columbia's Faculty of Science aims to meet this goal through the Bachelor of Science (Major or Honours) in Environmental Sciences. This program provides students with a strong background in science as well as an interdisciplinary perspective on the environment and sustainability. The backbone of the program is comprised of three sequential core courses: Introduction to Environmental Science, Introduction to Research in Environmental Science, and Research Project in Environmental Science. Each of the core courses in the program is student-centered, relying heavily on in-class presentations, debate, and group research. Given the wide breadth of the environmental science field, students gain a more specialized expertise by choosing one of two areas of concentration—Land, Air and Water or Ecology and Conservation. Students then fulfill the content knowledge of their area of concentration by taking required and recommended courses that are already offered through other departments in the Faculty of Arts and Science. They then bring this content knowledge to the three core courses where they work in interdisciplinary groups to improve their communication, research, teamwork, and critical thinking skills.

The main goals of the first core course "Introduction to Environmental Science" is to have students: 1) Identify, evaluate and synthesize environmental information from a variety of sources and viewpoints, formulate and ask relevant questions, and determine potential biases. 2) Communicate a coherent synthesis of a topic in environmental science, both orally and in writing 3) Defend a position, on an environmental issue, that is not necessarily their own viewpoint. Students are also given the opportunity to iteratively monitor and improve their own process of learning and build on their teamwork skills and peer review classmate's work. Students are exposed to a variety of environmental information through weekly homework readings and assignments and in-class expert guest speaker's. Both activities are followed-up with in-class discussion in both small and large groups. In addition to interacting with "experts," students also play the role of the information provider during in-class poster sessions where students present a scientific paper in small groups. Another large component of this class are mock town hall meetings, which are role-playing exercises in which small groups of students represent government or interest groups in a discussion of a controversial, locally relevant environmental issue. Students are also required to research and analyze an environmental issue of their choice throughout the term and write a "review" paper about the issue and orally present their paper in a formal setting.

The second core course "Introduction to Research in Environmental Science" builds heavily on the skills learned in the first course. How to read scientific papers is covered in more depth and we focus specifically on published examples of environmental models. Groups of students choose an environmental model, which they present and write a formal report on. The first opportunity for students to conduct their own research occurs is this class. Small groups of students are asked to: acquire data sets containing data that capture the behavior of an environmental phenomenon or process, articulate a question that they can address with these data, analyze the data so as to reveal the phenomenon of interest; and formally present their analysis in a presentation and report. With the theme of this course being environmental research, students work on a research proposal for some hypothetical environmental research they would like to conduct throughout the course. Another theme of the course is the crucial need to transfer technical knowledge from experts to stakeholders and decision makers. One crucial skill to be gained in this course is writing for the general public and we do this in the form of having the students write opposite-editorials for a newspaper.

In the final capstone course students work in teams and with community stakeholders to conduct a one-year independent research project, in which they write and publish a formal report and present their work to stakeholders during a poster session. Students who are designated as honors students conduct an individual yearlong research project under the guidance of a research supervisor. Both groups of students meet regularity to develop research, writing and presentation skills.

Unlike more traditionally focused disciplines, students leave our program and enter a diverse array of fields. They are employable across every resource sector and choose government, industry and not-for-profits jobs. Many of our students take post-graduate degrees in environmental fields as well as law, medicine and public heath. Students work across many different levels including research, consulting and management.

The Environmental Science program has shown an increase in enrolment over the past couple of years and one limitation of the program is that class sizes need to be capped in order to facilitate small group activities and in-class discussion.

One of the benefits and challenges of the program is that each core course has two full time instructors who teach simultaneously. The motivation behind this is that each of the instructors come from different backgrounds within environmental science and often provide students with different perspectives on a given topic. This also requires the instructors themselves to ensure and model good communication and teamwork skills through scholarly debate. Because of the nature of the course there is a tremendous amount of grading as students do weekly assignments and receive individual feedback on their work. So while there are only three core courses in the program they are fairly resource intensive.

UBC has been ranked as one of the top environmental science programs in the world, thus proving that a successful educational initiative can be created using the wealth of pre-existing, complimentary courses at an institution to teach content while providing a small number of courses focused on the applied skills required to integrate this content within larger environmental science issues.

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