Environmental Science and Policy: Real-World Learning

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Students in this interdisciplinary class learn facts--and how to cope with complexity and ambiguity

From the Summer 2012 Caller

By Andrea Michalowsky '12

Catlin Gabel prides itself on being green. We recycle, compost, and emphasize environmentalism in the elementary and middle school curricula. We even have goats roaming the campus to help with landscaping. Surrounded by all this sustainability, I considered myself environmentally conscious and aware of ecological concerns. However, my Environmental Science and Policy classes reminded me of just how little I know and how much there is for me to still learn. More importantly, they showed me the nuances, the importance of understanding issues fully, and how to gather the information necessary to form my own opinion.
 
Peter Shulman and Dan Griffiths began this interdisciplinary class in 2007. Peter, an experienced history teacher who had previously founded the PLACE urban studies program, presented the idea to Dan as an opportunity for students to understand both the politics and facts behind current affairs. Dan, a science teacher and biologist, saw the material as an opportunity for students to better understand the importance of science in current affairs.
 
Originally, the classes were linked, and the teachers sat in on each other’s classes. This year, however, they were separated for the first time, allowing students to take one of the classes without the other. Moreover, the Environmental Policy class ran for only one semester, complemented by a class on oil in the Middle East. These alterations not only gave the students more freedom in choosing classes, but also gave the teachers more freedom in choosing specific topics. Dan included a unit on truth and recognizing biases in articles. Peter further explored oil, currently a particularly pressing issue in regards to the environment. Even as the program evolved, it maintained its founding ideals and emphasis on experiential learning.
 
On the first day of Environmental Science, Dan told us that he intended to run the class as he would a college class. He expected us to lead our own learning. As such, one of the major projects of the year was a plant lab that was formulated by the students. Dan provided the plants and the nutrient formulas (we were studying the effects of nutrient deficiencies), but we had to create the procedures. We spent several class periods sitting around the U of desks discussing what should and should not be measured on the plants. The conversation went back and forth among the 17-person class. We often ended with the sense that nothing had been accomplished. The process was slow. In retrospect, I realize just how much I learned during those debates. They taught me the importance of listening, how to work with a group, and the necessity for patience. Moving forward with the lab and editing the procedure as it progressed, I also learned the evolutionary nature of experiments. This was a new aspect of science for me, a transition away from the traditional classroom labs. It provided a real-world applicability that had been lacking before.
 
This real-world applicability was matched by a real-world foundation. Both classes took field trips, seeing the issues in action. Environmental Policy took a tour of New Seasons Market as a model of a business that emphasizes local and sustainable products. During the genetically modified plant unit, Environmental Science visited Oregon Tilth and a genetic modification lab at Oregon State University. At OSU, one of the professors presented his argument for the necessity and naturalness of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The farmers working at Oregon Tilth objected to the superficiality of this solution and called for natural processes. Visiting the lab and the farm, we were able to see both sides of the debate in the real world. We then used this information, along with an extensive list of resources provided by Dan, to craft scientific essays for or against GMOs. However, the essays meant little compared to the field trips. Seeing the issues out in the world provided a grounding that could never be attained in the classroom.
 
We not only saw current issues in action, but also did projects to address them. We spent the last month of Environmental Science helping the rest of the school community with various environmental issues. The class divided into groups that addressed anything from curriculum for the Lower or Middle School to the best way to improve the greenhouse at the school in Ecuador that students will visit this summer. These projects required communication both within the groups and with the adult clients. Working with the adults to achieve a mutual goal made our projects more immediate. It was also like working for someone, further preparing us for the outside world.
 
In addition to teaching us life skills, these experiences provided the foundation for a full understanding of issues—and the recognition of the necessity for this understanding. Another project in Environmental Science consisted of a formal debate about nuclear power. We were split into a pro team and a con team and then did the research to support our arguments. We presented these arguments to the class and a panel of judges (Dan, outdoor education director Peter Green, and science teacher Aline Garcia-Rubio). Aside from the public speaking experience, we learned the nuances of the argument. In the end, the debate was tied; neither team came out as the obvious victor. This reflected my sentiment and that of most of my classmates: we don’t know definitively if nuclear power is good or bad. Although we remain unsure about the conclusion, we now better understand the issue. This understanding of the gray area revealed more than a decisive conclusion ever could. Not only did we see both sides, but we also recognized the importance of seeing both sides: the information became more important than the conclusion.
 
This full understanding and so many other aspects of this program left a lasting impact on students. On the first day of class, Dan had us each say why we were in the class and what we hoped to learn. On the final day, we discussed what we had learned, and if our opinions had changed. The vast majority of students agreed that we were now less sure of our standing on issues such as nuclear power but valued our greater understanding of the issues. We felt prepared to talk about the issues as informed citizens.
 
As Dan had promised, the class also prepared us for college. Sabin Ray ’11, who took the class last year and subsequently enrolled in an environmental studies class at Brown University, said that she arrived at college already informed about many of the issues that came up. The big, open-ended papers and labs Dan and Peter assigned prepared her and all of us for college-level courses. Beyond college, the classes taught us about learning in any capacity and working on projects and in groups. They provided life lessons that will be useful whether or not we go into environmentalism.
 
Catlin Gabel teaches us to be green, but more importantly it teaches us to be active learners and thinkers. Likewise, Environmental Science and Policy informed us about current issues, but more importantly taught us how to learn and form our own opinions.
 
Andrea Michalowsky ’12 will attend the writing seminars program at Johns Hopkins University this fall. She was the chief editor of the Catlin Gabel literary magazine, Pegasus.