Engaging with complexity in environmental science

I came to Duke’s annual Trillium sustainability workshop as a graduate student interested in sustainability and teaching.  The workshop promised to combine the two and I was intrigued.  I was unsure whether the workshop was about teaching sustainably or teaching about sustainability (both, it turns out) and what sustainable teaching could mean other than avoiding printed handouts.  I came away with much more insight than I expected.

The workshop started with an exercise to investigate complexity.  We used lengths of twine to represent connections between different stakeholders in a complex environmental issue, stretching the twine between pictures of the stakeholders to create a physical map.  During this session, we focused on multiple competing uses of fisheries, but I later found that the exercise works equally well with many themes in sustainability.  We got out of our chairs and stretched the string across an entire wall.  The web of string quickly became tangled, which is precisely the point.  As teachers and professionals looking to address sustainability, we have to be able to thread all those connections between stakeholders in complex situations.  More importantly, we also have to teach students how to interpret these complex webs that abound in real-world environmental issues.

That theme of complexity and interconnectedness returned throughout the Trillium workshop, imparting a lasting lesson that has informed my teaching since.  During the workshop, I had the opportunity to talk to people from a variety of disciplines and learn about some of the challenges they faced in both the content and practice of their teaching.  Although our roles and our subject matter were different, our goal of expanding students’ awareness of sustainability was the same.  As a scientist, I found it useful to share experiences with teachers in the arts and humanities and learn how they are choosing to address environmental issues and sustainability in their courses.

The connections that I built with the broader sustainability community at Duke during the first Trillium workshop that I attended have continued to enrich my teaching over the ensuing years.  Being involved with the Trillium community has helped to keep me aware of the numerous events around campus related to sustainability.  I also developed valuable professional connections, one of which led to an opportunity to be a teaching assistant for an introductory environmental science course at Duke.

My experiences sharing ideas with other Trillium fellows informed how I decided to lead my sections for that environmental science course.  Going back to my first experience in the Trillium workshop of taping string to a wall, one of my teaching goals for the semester was to help my students gain the ability to evaluate the multiple interconnected relationships imbedded a complex environmental issue.  As such, that semester the students and I read and discussed Jon Moallem’s book Wild Ones.  This book is packed full of complex issues presently facing wildlife conservationists.  Should we devote resources to saving species whose habitat is likely to disappear as a result of human actions?  What do we do when species become “conservation reliant” and can no longer exist without human intervention?  Should we focus on saving particular charismatic species at all or should we focus on saving ecosystems?  Moallem presents these questions by taking a more in-depth look at species whose stories’ students have likely encountered before: the polar bear clinging to a melting Arctic, for example.

The book proved to be a fantastic avenue to explore a complexity within environmental science.  The book provides thought-provoking and discussion-generating questions, but there are few, if any, answers or value judgements.  That meant that we could spend the class sessions coming up with those solutions ourselves.  For example, Moallem describes a wildlife refuge which has struggled unsuccessfully for decades to preserve a critically endangered set of plants and insects.  The students worked on creating a revamped management plan for the refuge to address the issues described in the book, based on the existing budget for the refuge (which I found online).

One of my other teaching goals for the semester was to empower students to build of their understanding of complexity to develop solutions to environmental problems.  Studying environmental science and sustainability can be disheartening, especially for beginning students.  I remember the litany of destruction that I encountered in my first environmental science course in college years ago.  I want to move students past that point, to help them avoid becoming disillusioned or hopeless.  Staying in touch with other members of the Trillium community at Duke helps remind me that while we there are many challenges in environmental science and sustainability, there are also many opportunities to develop novel solutions.  One of the most exiting aspects of teaching about sustainability is that I get to watch a group of bright students come up with innovative new ideas every semester.

My graduate training is in ecology, a discipline which is focused on the connections between organisms and the environment they inhabit.  Ecology also teaches that no environment is static over the long term.  My involvement with Trillium has helped me to realize that these same insights apply equally well to many issues in sustainability.  To address any issue, just like understanding an ecosystem, we must first understand the relationships that drive that issue.  Moreover, like ecological systems, few environmental issues are static.  As technologies change, new opportunities (and challenges) arise.

The dynamism of studying and teaching about sustainability is one of the aspects that makes it so rewarding to me.  In hopes of passing on some of my enthusiasm for solving complex problems, I start the first class session of every semester with a ball of string, some scissors, and a big, empty wall.

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