Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Free and open education on climate change

One of my colleagues and mentors, Don Brown of Penn State and primary author of the blog Climate Ethics, has written, "climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical issue" It is the greatest technical and ethical problem human beings have ever faced.

Global? Check. Complicated? Check. Hinged on human activity? Check. Hinged on natural processes humans don't control? Check. It's possible that human-induced climate change could in the next century create an atmosphere more CO2-intense and warmer than any since the Jurassic period 150 million years ago. Sadly, there will be no dinosaurs*.

Challenges issues of justice, rights, and responsibilities? Check. Faces us with our own limits? Check. If this is the case, and climate change is a civilization challenging ethical (and technical issue) then education must respond. At colleges and universities across the world faculty have set up all kinds of courses to introduce students to the science, ethics, politics, and policies that deal with climate change. There are even signatory agreements between colleges and universities like the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, Second Nature, the Copernicus Charter and others mandate that signatory institutions create greenhouse gas reduction and mitigation programs with curriculum for environmental literacy. Climate change education occupies a central part of that curriculum these days.

But all universities and colleges have limited enrollment. They have maximum student capacity made possible by people's ability to gain admission and their ability and willingness to pay. How can someone something like course in climate change without going to college?

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions now offers online courses that take the lay person through the science of climate change. They have an Introduction, a lesson on CO2 and the greenhouse effect, Mother Nature's influence on climate, observable changes in climate, and finally climate modeling. What's great to see as teachers is that there are learning outcomes for each of them that build upon the previous lesson and enabling further understanding, connected to other resources through the home website, and also linked to education for sustainability in British Columbia and abroad (pdf here).

It might be the case that understanding the what and the how of climate change are very important. But at some level answering the question "Why have humans used technologies that caused climate change to begin with?" might be more important. If we can answer that question, we might be able to figure out how we can change society to mitigate our impacts on the climate and thus ourselves. But that might be a really radical form of education and possibly the kind of education that ethically grounds a better civilization.

* There has been woolly mammoth DNA found and some people would like to engineer and birth a mammoth. Jurassic Park may be less fictional than we thought.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reimagining education for resilient and sustainable people and communities

We have to change educational systems. Failing schools. Dropouts. Low rates of literacy. Scientific illiteracy. Achievement gaps a mile wide between ethnicities and socio-economic brackets. America has problems in its educational systems. But we have perhaps a much bigger problem of education looming behind everything.

Ecocide. The industrial people of the world have used so much fossil fuel so fast that we have fundamentally altered the planet's atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. In the Arctic we're melting glaciers, displacing Inuit people, melting tundra and ruining boreal forest soil, and messing with polar bear, walrus, seal, caribou, reindeer, wolf, and migratory bird habitats. The Amazon and southeast Asian tropical rain forests are being falling, transforming it from a water and carbon sink into a carbon releasing territory, changing rainfall patterns all around it, turning a biodiversity hot spot into an extinction hot spot, and eradicating indigenous populations. What's to be done?

If you're a teacher you must believe you have some agency in the world and that touching people's lives and awakening them to new knowledge or deep connections can happen in school. How about awakening them to their connection to and reliance on the Earth and its systems? Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That must include school too.

How are people trying to build a bridge to a better future? Creative Change Education Solutions is taking some steps in this direction.

A new vision is taking hold —a future where communities thrive, the environment is healthy, traditions matter, and green economies provide real prosperity for all. We believe everyone has a stake in this future and that education must inspire learning and leadership towards it.

Creative Change Educational Solutions is a nonprofit organization advancing educational leadership and transformation through a lens of sustainability. Based in southeast Michigan, we serve K12 schools, nonprofits, universities, and teacher education programs at the national level.
They are taking on the critical problems of the world and offering what I've been calling "gorgeous solutions." It's not just doom and gloom and the notion that we're all just about to get dunked with the sinking Titanic. We have choices ahead and great things to learn, interesting and compelling people to meet, relationships to develop, technologies to advance, and communities to thrive in. So how?

Take for example their materials from Sustainable by Design:
Our world is filled with “stuff”, but where does it all come from, and where does it go when it’s done? How—and why—do we design, create, use and dispose of the things we use each day? This program explores ways to make design, building, and manufacturing greener and more equitable. Programs explore how scientific, economic and cultural factors influence decisions, and the implications for workers, consumers and business leaders.
What's really interesting about this resource is that they have scaled it so that you can work on it from elementary through higher education. I, for example, work in a teacher education program and have been seriously contemplating a course that would develop sustainability awareness for teachers, administrators, policy makers or analysts, architects, and engineers by using the built environment - from whole cities to single buildings - to understand and learn about our interactions with the more-than-human environment. From a newly developed understanding, how could we teach children, make better policies, and individually and collectively lead more sustainable lives? And here is a resource to get me started with something more substantial than what I'd had on my own.

If you're a third grade or tenth grade teacher now you have the same opportunity. If you're really lucky you can integrate curricula like these into school gardening, environmental footprint, and/or contemporary government work. This is a whole new way to arrange schooling that could work in many of the schools highlighted in Smart by Nature published by the Center for Ecological Literacy.

"The implications" they could be referring to above are considerable. Confronted with the patterns of waste we generate, our consciences might be piqued. So piqued, we could act better for ourselves and our world. This is getting at a whole other kind of thinking that gets away from the linear mechanical industrial school and gets at the webs of living and life we actually are in. [This isn't the only such resource. Peruse the this blog's right sidebar for many many more.]

Now that might be some really worthwhile schooling. It might be not only sustainability education but actually be sustainable education. Imagine that.