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Instituting Environmental Change

Instituting Environmental ChangeThe revival of the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute seeks to make environmental issues a cross-disciplinary priority.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.13.09] Many people may not see a connection between a professor in the classics or mathematics department and environmental issues, but for those involved in the revival of the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute (TELI), the connection is not only clear, but vital.

The goal of the TELI is to raise awareness about environmental issues by providing faculty with tools to incorporate these themes in their classrooms, according to Tufts Institute of the Environment's (TIE) Program Manager, Antje Danielson. The program's concept was pioneered at Tufts and has since been adapted by other universities around the country.

Thanks to funding from TIE and the Office of the Provost, this May the university hosted its second TELI in two years, this one on climate change and "climate justice," for a four-day workshop that organizers hope is just the beginning of the program's rebirth.

During its first incarnation in the 1990s, the TELI was a two-week long workshop that brought together sciences and humanities professors from around the nation, with the idea of benefiting not only faculty but also students, who would be exposed to environmental issues across several different disciplines.

"When funding went away, the program stopped, but last year, a smaller, four-day version of the program was resurrected for only Tufts faculty and lecturers," Danielson says. "We are in the process of ramping it back up again and encouraging other [faculty] to hold a TELI. It could be about water or pollution, really any environmental topic, and we will give priority to any faculty member who wants to hold a TELI and contribute additional funds."

One of the leaders in the TELI revival was Professor of Chemistry  at Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences Jonathan Kenny, who was among the original participants in the 1990s. His co-director in the revival was Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Lecturer Ann Rappaport.

"I had really positive experiences with TELI and felt it accomplished a number of things," Kenny says. "In addition to helping faculty learn about environmental issues to add to their curriculum, just having a reason to get faculty from different disciplines together, I think, always leads to stimulating discussion, new friendships and eventually new collaborations whether it be teaching or in research."

"The original TELI asked participating faculty to introduce environmental content in an existing course or to design a new course with environmental content," says Rappaport who began looking into reviving the TELI in 2006. "Research I conducted with Professor Peggy Barlett, a colleague at Emory University, found that over the years, many participants exceeded expectations; they modified several courses, and in addition, co-authored papers with faculty in other disciplines and conducted interdisciplinary research as a result of their participation in TELI."

With major funders such as the National Science Foundation placing emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration, Rappaport says she thought it was strategic for Tufts to make a modest investment in reviving TELI.

 Jonathan Kenny and Ann Rappaport

"Kenny's idea of focusing TELI on climate change and climate justice was brilliant; the topic demands interdisciplinary treatment and crafting solutions will be the defining challenge for our students," she says.

According to Kenny, the idea for the topic was set in motion until 2007, when a series of on-campus happenings brought climate justice to the forefront.

"A couple of seniors in the Peace and Justice Studies program had presented a project about the nation of Kiribati," Kenny says, referring to the island nation in the Pacific Ocean. "They visited the islands and then reported back to the Tufts campus the following fall. It was a pretty compelling story and it made me aware that while most of us had our consciousness raised about our carbon footprint, most of us were not thinking about the justice aspect."

Soon thereafter, Kenny became involved in the creation of an ad-hoc faculty, staff and student committee known as "Climate Change, Climate Justice," which aims to raise climate justice awareness through programming and campus events.

In November of that same year, Kenny attended a presentation by the Stockholm Environment Institute, an independent research organization with branches in several countries, including a U.S. office on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus. Kenny says he was particularly impressed with SEI senior scientist Sivan Kartha, who discussed "climate justice," or finding equitable ways of distributing the costs associated with dealing with climate change.

"These presentations really got me very strongly committed to doing something about justice, so when the right opportunity came up to do something with TIE, I proposed that we do a TELI, and that the first few years be dedicated to the topic of climate change, climate justice," Kenny says.

Jessica Soule (G'11), a graduate student in the Department Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning who helped TIE organize the May TELI, says that when it comes to environmental issues, those who specialize in the humanities have just as much to offer as those in the sciences.

"There is an advantage to thinking of it from different perspectives. Not many scientists would think of climate change and wonder what the moral implications of this problem may be, so this is where the effectiveness of different backgrounds comes into play," Soule says.

"In the arts, for example," Soule adds, the impact of climate change on peoples' lives is "has been shown through sculpture and paintings, a format that touches people in a way that a policymaker stating facts may not."

This May's four-day workshop showcased a number of different speakers, including an opening speech by President Lawrence S. Bacow and talks from Kartha, The Fletcher School's William Moomaw, the Feinstein Center's Peter Walker, Eric Chivian, the founder and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard and Michael Meldonian, an Oxfam representative.

"Professor Moomaw, who is on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change and the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Al Gore, spoke about causes and impacts and trends in climate change, while Peter Walker talked about famine, civil war, unrest and syphilis," Danielson says. "All the participants said that climate change is such a hot topic right now, but what they didn't realize was the climate justice aspect of it, which highlights the impact climate change will have on various regional areas on earth and how that will affect people living there."

Participants will report back in September with a one-page outline of how they will incorporate what they learned into their curriculum, and then again in January to report on actual implementation.

"I think the real thing is that there is a place for everyone of every discipline," Soule says. "It is not going to be over them, it is not going to be under them, professors can just come and we will find a place for them using their own skill set."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.

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