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Interdisciplinary Environmental Science Reflection and Communication

Kathleen Phillips, Earth Systems, Stanford University

My approach to teaching sustainability in an interdisciplinary context is to engage the students as both active learners and teachers in class. I teach reflection seminars for both seniors and MS students that focus on science communication. My students have broad interests and academic paths ranging from food security and agricultural policy to ocean conservation to renewable energy technologies, and it is my goal for every class that all students learn from the interests and expertise of their peers. To this end, I focus on small group work with report-back to the whole class and student presentations where they explain their own expertise to the class and lead class discussion.

Interdisciplinary work requires much more in-class time that a standard course, and I have found that it is very important to student learning that I incorporate time in class for the students to reflect on what they are learning, talk to each other, and ask questions. When students are working on group projects, it has proven useful to schedule weekly meeting times outside of class with each group to help them wrestle with stakeholder analysis and refine the research questions they are asking. Students can be easily daunted when facing an interdisciplinary project and often need more guidance from the outset to define the scope and direction of their work.

One of my main goals for all of my classes is for students to improve their abilities to communicate their science to a variety of audiences including policy-makers, the public, and colleagues from other disciplines. I have benefited from working with excellent TAs and requiring all students to practice any presentations to be made to the class with the TA at least once before presenting anything to the class. This requires students to make a first cut at removing any jargon or confusing topics from their presentations. Further refinement comes from peer review of presentations in class, and I have found that students give excellent guidance and advice to each other. It helps to make peer review required, and to include acting as a peer-reviewer in the participation part of the class grade.

I'm looking forward to learning new techniques and activities from other conference participants that I can incorporate into my future classes.

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