Stanford University: Immersive sustainability course embodies new school principles

Among the persimmon trees, flowering perennials and cover crops on the west side of campus, more than two dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers gathered at the Stanford Educational Farm to develop new perceptions of the scope of their research and their place on the planet.

The students, who were from a range of disciplines, focused on making connections by aligning around a central concept: sustainability. As a result, they are approaching a new academic year with environmentally centered critical-thinking tools and a cohort of like-minded colleagues with shared guiding principles.

“We know from research that we tend to get caught up in the despair and challenges, rather than focusing on the opportunities and building the skills to make a positive difference,” said Nicole Ardoin, the Sykes Family Director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), who was one of the lead instructors of the intensive course held the week of Sept. 7. “We designed the course to develop knowledge and skills that build collective efficacy – including envisioning sustainable future worlds – as well as actionable pathways to get there.”

The accelerated summer course, Exploring Planetary Stewardship: Sustainability Solutions in a Rapidly Changing World, was part of the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute (SGSI), an optional immersive program for current and incoming graduate students. The organizers received a large number of applicants, with 20 selected for this initial year that was hosted at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, a working home for hands-on learning in sustainable agriculture. They hope to continue reaching students through similar experiences in subsequent years with Stanford’s new school focused on climate and sustainability, Ardoin said.

“We are planning to offer a ‘sustainability boot camp’ for graduate students coming into the new school, so we saw this as an opportunity for a pilot test,” Ardoin said. “Among the core offering of the new school will be keystone experiences for both undergrads and graduate students, so we worked with the instructional team to create experiences, tools and workshops that we can build out more broadly.”

In addition to directing E-IPER, Ardoin is the founder of the Social Ecology Lab and an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education. The course’s instructional team also included Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation Professor in the Department of Earth System Science, and Mele Wheaton and Marika Jaeger, interdisciplinary research scholars in the Social Ecology Lab.

The group framed lectures and workshops around sustainability competencies developed through more than two decades of work by large-scale consortia like the National Academies and the United Nations, then streamlined, focused and tailored by Stanford researchers and the Blueprint Advisory Committee for Stanford’s new school on climate and sustainability. The competencies broadly encompass systems thinking, transdisciplinary thinking and connecting research and practice. Sustainability is “the thread through everything as we move forward in thinking about keeping our world not only a decent place to live, but a joyful and thriving place to live,” Ardoin emphasized.

“One of the exciting parts of this new school is that we are bringing people together from around campus under a new umbrella and in a different way than before,” Diffenbaugh said.

Faculty and staff instructors brought expertise in Earth sciences, engineering, agroecology, education, design thinking and community partnerships. “We involved a number of faculty and instructional staff with a diversity of perspectives, training and experiences, especially related to how we study and teach about sustainability,” Wheaton said.

In the mornings, the students attended lectures ranging from wastewater recovery engineering and climate adaptation to environmental justice and global warming. They applied those concepts during hands-on workshops in the afternoons, engaging in climate fiction writing, virtual field trip design, nature journaling and sustainability solutions with community partners.

For Ryan O’Connor, an incoming PhD student in E-IPER, the SGSI course served as a much-needed transition back into academia after a four-year hiatus, during which time he served in the U.S. Navy, then worked as an environmental policy consultant.

“A lot of the discussions have involved thinking about our ideal future and working back from there, focusing on what steps we can take now to get to that aspirational goal. We’ve been imagining it from every angle,” O’Connor said. “The biggest thing for me has been the emphasis on systems thinking and understanding how the little thing you study is part of a bigger system.”

The last day of the course synthesized the week’s learnings through a design-thinking exercise led by Carissa Carter, director of teaching and learning at the d.school. Students used amorphous Venn diagrams to unpack relationships among seemingly disparate concepts – a process that encouraged students to envision how their research and disciplines might connect with those of others. Building on the diagrams, the students created their own sustainability manifestos in the context of their personal lives and careers.

“It’s so cool how the course moved sustainability beyond the realm of the ‘technical’ – the instructors really tried to embody what they said about systems thinking in the beginning of the course by bringing in different elements that connect environmental sustainability,” said incoming student Kelly Redmond, who is pursuing a Master of Science in Design Impact with the School of Engineering.

On the closing afternoon, Jorge Ramos, associate director of education at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, and Luke Terra, director of community-engaged learning and research at the Haas Center for Public Service, presented on Stanford’s Principles of Ethical and Effective Service and encouraged the students to reflect on community engagement. Terra reminded students that “those closest to the pain are closest to the solutions.”

“It’s our responsibility to do education and outreach with the community, and it’s also a privilege,” Ramos said. “We don’t just do research for us; we communicate results for change.”

In addition to the lectures and workshops, the SGSI course involved guidance on nature journaling as a form of reflective practice. Daily, the students documented their thoughts on the three main sustainability competencies, and at the end of the course they journaled about their immediate next steps as well as what they would remember five years from now. Sharing those thoughts in the closing session, when several students commented on the important bonding experience of the course, the memorable interdisciplinary sustainability content and the unique connections they had made with faculty, staff and students from across campus.

“One measure of success was to see how the student community grew throughout the week,” Ardoin said. “Many of them commented about how, by the end of the week, they felt like they were going into the school year already connected with each other, as a sustainability community.”

Ardoin said she and the other organizers intend to continue the connection with the cohort by meeting as a community later in the 2021-22 academic year to share where they are on their sustainability journeys.

“We have a cadre of faculty on campus who are eager to do this kind of interdisciplinary education and to support students in doing engaged research as well,” Ardoin said. “I hope we can continue to offer this course – or something similar – in a way that is designed to bring in others, so you don’t have to be an expert in climate or sustainability to enjoy and participate in it.”

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