Collaborative painting by students of the 2015 Innovations for Change class with visiting artist Rose Marie Prins, in an exercise that supported students in connecting to iconic representations of our land and sustainable campus, including the Hampshire Tree and Dutch-Belted cattle at the Hampshire Farm (Photograph by SRP)
In the ECG grant-supported class Innovations for Change: Problem Solving for the Future, students were challenged to consider global environmental change, what it means to live sustainably, and how to innovate solutions to these challenges from a spectrum of social, political, ethical, artistic, and scientific perspectives. The course was co-taught in the Fall 2017 semester by faculty across the curriculum at Hampshire (IA, CS, and NS) and hosted guest lectures from experts across a breadth of areas related to climate change and sustainability. Here to share more are the Hampshire professors who taught it: Sarah Partan, Jana Silver, and Seeta Sistla.
What was important to you about offering Innovations for Change this year?
SP: Climate change is an increasingly pressing issue that affects us all. It is important to me that we do our best to educate ourselves and one another about the social, political, and environmental impacts of this deeply troubling and serious problem. It is also important to me that we do not get scared into numbness and inaction by the gravity of the situation. In our course we aim to focus on solutions, to be forward-thinking and innovative in coming up with solutions that will benefit everyone.
JS: I agree with everything Sarah said. Additionally, I feel that college students should comprehend the realities of climate change and realize that they are in a position to make change, but it’s a process and one that requires research and being informed citizens.
SS: Creating a course that helps students to understand the extraordinary nature of modern environmental change, but also provides the tools and skills to help contribute to mitigating climate change and adapting to this new reality, as well educating others about these issues, is something we were all passionate about pursuing.
Courses at Hampshire are usually taught by a single professor and occasionally by a pair. This course is co-taught by three (!) professors across different schools of thought – IA, CS, and NS. Why did you choose to collaborate together? What did you learn by doing so?
SP: In the original course proposal, we actually designed the course to be taught by 5 (!) faculty across the curriculum, one from each of Hamsphire’s five schools. The motivation for this was to emphasize that climate change is not only a concern for some of our fields, such as within the sciences, but it is a concern for – and deeply connected to – all of our fields. We wanted to engage the students and the faculty across the college in brainstorming solutions together.
JS: To us, it was important that students realized no matter their area of concentration or future interests, we are all connected to this problem and the road to solutions comes in many forms.
SS: Environmental change affects all people and is inherently multidisciplinary. Echoing Sarah and Jana’s sentiments, we wanted to include multiple voices on this fundamental issue – an essential factor for finding tractable solutions to our global change problems.
In addition to being co-taught by three Hampshire faculty, you all invited in guest speakers (including other Hampshire faculty) as well, experts in their fields ranging from philosophy and psychology, to policy-making and education, to art and activism. What were some of the most impactful guest lectures and in what ways did they support the curriculum?
SP: Our visitors are a key component of the course. This course is an ambitious broad look across many perspectives, and none of us are expert in all the areas needed to teach the course. We invite specialists in to have access to their expertise, and to enable the students to meet other professionals working in the field. In addition to visiting the class, our guests are also invited to lunch or tea with a subset of the students from the class, allowing students the opportunity for more casual conversation. This has proved to be a favorite experience of many of the students. To give a couple of examples of visitors, we have invited our president Jonathan Lash in every year to discuss his experiences working toward climate solutions, such as bringing government and industry together to negotiate agreements. He also challenges the students to envision what they want the world to look like in 20 years and what we need to do now to get there. This past year we invited Zaza Kabayadondo from the Design Thinking Initiative at Smith College to lead the students through an exercise using design thinking to solve a sustainability problem. Our goals are always to encourage interactive sessions, focused on problem-solving and student engagement.
JS: We felt that it was imperative for our students to see that involvement and solutions come in all forms and these are real people who have chosen specific paths. Seeing how and why and asking questions was key to having the chosen visitors.
SS: Our guest visitors was one of the most special aspects of the course. They provided a wealth of perspectives on combating environmental change, including through policy, technological innovation, philosophical inquiry, and education. I learned a tremendous amount from our guest speakers.
This course has been taught twice before, once in 2013 and again in 2015. What changes have you seen and/or made since its original?
SP: Every year we invite some new visitors, and continue with others, never having enough time to invite as many as we’d like. There are too many fascinating speakers and practitioners who we would love to see interact with the students, and who we’d love to learn from along with the class. In terms of what we’ve seen in our students, the landscape has dramatically shifted since we began, in terms of how much students know coming in to the class. In 2013 most of our topics were new to the students. In 2017 many, if not most, students had actually studied climate change in high school already.
JS: At the end of the semester, we always ask for feedback on visitors, projects, and class in general. We encourage students to be specific and we always take this into account when planning the next class. The changes usually involve the visitors and sometimes the workload.
SS: I echo the sentiments of Sarah and Jana. We use class feedback to refine our class topics, projects, and guest speakers. I would love to see this class taught yearly at Hampshire, both because of the pressing topic and the dynamic nature of the course.
For their term projects, students worked in small teams to identify specific, solvable problems associated with climate change or sustainability. What were some of the problems they identified?
SP: Many topics from how to use recycled material in public art displays to how to make sustainable fuel to creating educational brochures for kids.
SS: On of my favorite projects was the recognition by a group of students that the College’s waste systems are confusing to students because there is no standard education on what is compostable, recyclable, etc. These students set out to interview other campuses with successful waste-reduction programs and designed an educational program for incoming students to learn about the waste systems on campus.
Once groups settled on an issue, they explored how communities are currently dedicated to solving the problem, diving into primary literature research and collaborative brainstorming to generate potential solutions. What excited students about this process and what, if anything, was challenging?
SP: Students like having the opportunity to brainstorm ideas and go in their own direction. We do require them to work with a group, and many students find it challenging to collaborate with others with divergent opinions. But we feel that that is important work to learn how to do as well!
JS: I agree with Sarah, and I would like to add that by working in groups on subjects that are related, but not obviously directly connected, it opens their eyes to a more holistic approach to problem-solving.
SS: Echoing Jana and Sarah, I think that the students sometimes struggled to find connections with others in their group, but once they found these links, synergistic collaborations unfolded.
Bringing it all together, students presented their innovative solutions to the problems they chose in a final class symposium. What did students come up with? What creative ways did they share their projects?
JS: Through theater, visual arts and straightforward presentations the students shared their projects. For example, one group created a travel agency scenario, one made a sculpture from recycled materials collected around campus, a group wrote and illustrated a children’s book on climate change and a different group made a vegan handbook.
SS: The projects were terrific and wide ranging in their presentation strategies. Some highlights for me included: education systems for waste reduction, a film on human garbage generation that was simultaneously provocative and educational, using oyster mushrooms to create an edible product out of household waste, and an extremely detailed analysis of the campus food/compost system were just a few of the projects that emerged from the class.
The hope for this course was for students to make real progress toward thinking about solutions to pressing local and global problems today, and to feel more prepared and motivated to become involved in future innovating. Reflecting back over the semester, did the class community meet this hope? How did you all grow over the semester? What did you learn from each other? What feels more possible now?
SP: One thing we haven’t discussed yet is the first project of the course, which for many people can be the most impactful because of its personal nature. We challenge everyone (all students in the class along with the faculty and TA’s) to take on what we call a “personal change project.” The goal is to explore our own capacity for change, knowing that adaptation to climate change will require many personal as well as societal changes. We ask people to chose one behavior they do that impacts the environment, such as how many miles they drive or how many plastic containers they discard, etc., and measure their usual behavior for a week. Then we take on three weeks of working to lessen our impact, taking data on our progress. For me this has been an extremely powerful exercise, and each year I teach the course I take on a new challenge. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I fail at making change. Our goal is to think about what make positive change possible, and how we can move toward that in our lives, both as individuals and as a whole. I would love to have a reunion of all 3 years of the course, and have everyone come and talk about whether or not they kept up their personal change project, and what they have learned as a result. Many of our students have gone on to include the study of sustainability in their Div III and beyond, and I would love to hear about what they are doing now.
Sarah Partan is an Associate Professor of Animal Behavior at Hampshire College. Her research interests are in the areas of animal social behavior and communication. She is particularly interested in multisensory signaling: how and why animals (including humans) combine signals from multiple sensory channels during communication. You can read more about Sarah here.
Jana Silver is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Education at Hampshire College. She teaches courses in art education and arts integration and she is a certified K-12 art teacher who has been teaching art for over 25 years to children and adults locally and internationally. You can read more about Jana here.
Seeta Sistla is an Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Ecology at Hampshire College. She is an ecosystem ecologist who studies how soils, plants, and microbial communities respond to environmental change, and how these changes can feedback to affect larger-scale ecosystem processes and coupled human-natural systems. You can read more about Seeta here.