OOS 30-5 - Making the connections through curriculum changes: Developing environmental justice courses for graduate students in ecology & environmental sciences

Wednesday, August 10, 2011: 2:50 PM
14, Austin Convention Center
Jessica R. Miesel, Forestry, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Leanne M. Jablonski, University of Dayton Hanley Sustainability Institute, Marianist Environmental Education Center, Dayton, OH, George A. Middendorf, Biology Department, Howard University, Washington, DC and Charles H. Nilon, School of Natural Resources, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

Effective earth stewardship calls for interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships between community groups and environmental professionals.  Coursework and dialog that promotes understanding of the social and political contexts within which ecological issues are resolved is critical for preparing future ecologists and other citizens to develop effective, sustainable solutions.  Further, effective engagement with EJ communities has profound implications for the future demographics of ecologists, public ecological literacy, and local environmental stewardship.  We designed and offered a seminar course for ecology graduate students at four universities to (1) acquaint ecologists with the history and current issues of the environmental justice (EJ) movement,  (2) identify existing and potential ways by which ecologists contribute to EJ, and (3) provide recommendations for other ecologists interested in engaging in EJ.  We evaluated course content and structure and assessed student learning using surveys, written evaluations and in-class dialogue.


Personal interaction with EJ activists and/or community groups was most effective for understanding potential collaborations.  Community engagement activities illustrated the valuable role ecologists can play as a resource for community groups, and the need for ecologists to understand the socio-cultural dimensions of a partner community.  Skills for establishing and maintaining community partnerships, however, are not learned in typical graduate ecology curricula, and efforts devoted to such partnerships are often not recognized as valuable components of professional development.  Likewise, collaborations between ecologists and social scientists are complicated by differences in vocabulary and in research and statistical methods.  Students felt that interdisciplinary training, including use of qualitative as well as quantitative research methods, would better enable ecologists to communicate with other disciplines and to more effectively engage with local communities.  Although ecologists can provide expert advice on environmental problems to EJ communities, respect for experiential knowledge and willingness to learn from community members are critical for positive relationships.  Students felt that EJ and ecology are complementary pursuits but expressed concern about being viewed as activists rather than objective ecologists.  These insights contribute to ecologists’ ability to navigate relationships with EJ communities, and help young ecologists understand the role of ecology in society.

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