Teaching hope during the climate crisis

In new cross-disciplinary course on the climate crisis, students work together on plans for climate action

Worried about the climate crisis? Want to learn about climate change from experts and explore what you can do about it?

McGill has a course for you.

The primary goal of FSCI198: Climate Crisis and Climate Actions is to enable students to find enough hope to want to engage with the climate crisis.

“We want students to see that there’s a place for them to take on climate action, so that they can have hope and agency, even if they don’t come into the course with that idea,” says Marcy Slapcoff of the Faculty of Science’s Office of Science Education (OSE), which developed the course.

Offered for the first time last fall, FSCI198 featured five instructors who taught the course simultaneously, simulating a panel of experts. Each instructor drew on their own research experience, in fields ranging from ice sheets and ecology to public policy and science communication. Their perspectives were complemented by an array of guest speakers.

Cross-disciplinary mix

The 45 undergraduate students in the inaugural course added to the cross-disciplinary mix. Most were from the Faculty of Science or the Faculty of Arts, with several from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the Desautels Faculty of Management and others.

Teaching Assistants (TAs) from multiple departments, working in pairs, ran workshops. Representing various academic backgrounds -- but all conducting research related to climate change -- the TAs mentored small groups of students during the semester, offering the opportunity to engage in climate conversations that could lead to real action.

Guest speakers included experts in sustainability and policy, Indigenous land defenders Eve Saint and Vanessa Gray, Mohawk Faith Keeper Kevin Ka’nahsohon Deer, and hockey great-turned-public servant Ken Dryden.

Ken Dryden

“Climate change is starting to seem very personal to you. And it should,” Dryden told the students in the course’s inaugural class. “It is about the future, and the future belongs to you in a way it doesn’t to me, or to your professors or teachers, or your parents, or to government or industry decision makers, because you have more skin in this game than we do, because you will live longer.”

COP15 conference

The inaugural course was well-timed, with the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) taking place in Montreal from Dec. 7-19. Students were able to register for delegate passes to attend the conference, where they had the opportunity to interact with scientists, activists and policymakers.

The final assignment, a climate action plan developed in groups, allowed the students to draw on what they had learned, as well as on their other personal experiences and interests.

Cameron Toy Kluger

“I appreciated that no two days were the same in the course,” said Cameron Toy Kluger, a U1 BSc. student who was part of the first cohort. Each lesson had a new expert whose ideas were reinforced in the smaller tutorial sessions during the week. The course allowed me to learn about solutions happening on the ground level and propelled me to attend the COP15 conference.”

Respectful discourse

The course’s cross-disciplinary format allowed the students to observe their instructors discussing and debating the material between themselves. “It’s empowering for students to see an instructional team work together and listen to each other,” said Diane Dechief, Science Communication Specialist for the OSE and one of the five course instructors. “It makes them feel that they can engage in a similar, respectful way with their peers.”

Clara Bancel Cabia, a U1 BSc. student in Microbiology and Immunology, appreciated the variety of approaches presented in class. “As a Science student I had no idea that economists, politicians or sociologists could be involved in this action,” she said. “I really think this message gives hope because it means that anyone, but most importantly everyone, can get involved.”

In addition to Dr. Dechief, the main instructors were Julia Freeman, Lecturer at the Bieler School of Environment; Natalya Gomez, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Jennifer Sunday, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology; and Christopher Ragan, Associate Professor and founding Director of McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. Rebeca Esquivel, also of OSE, helped train the TAs and provided guidance on pedagogical strategies best suited to climate education.

Years in the making

Years of preparation went into shaping FSCI198.

Dechief and Slapcoff of the OSE were working on developing the course in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting their initiative on pause. But slowing down its development ultimately made more space for fruitful consultations, focus groups with students, and fine-tuning the details of the ambitious course, they said. Now, after the successful first offering in the Fall 2022 semester, the two organizers are happy with the course design and look forward to welcoming more students as enrolment increases. While the course took place online last fall, it will be offered in-person going forward.

Students attending a class

“It’s rewarding to see everything fall into place so well,” said Slapcoff, Director of the OSE. “One thing that came out in the focus groups was students’ desire to focus on solutions and actions for positive change. There are meaningful assignments and in-class activities that get students to develop their capacity to work together to address the climate crisis, starting now!”

Different ways of thinking

A pillar of the course is to show students what kinds of actions people—not just experts—have taken, and what actions people continue to take. “We really wanted to expose the students to different ways of thinking about and gathering evidence telling stories about the climate,” said Slapcoff. “We also wanted them to be able to engage with the climate crisis, bringing their own backgrounds and knowledge, values and perspectives to the table.”

That exposure to different ways of thinking resonated with U3 Biology student Jérôme Gingras Debien. “It feels nice to get to connect and discuss with people who may not have the same background as me, but who share the same concerns,” he said.

During the final lecture, which was held both in person and online, Kevin Ka’nahsohon Deer pulled from rich Indigenous perspectives to deliver a message of hope and respect for each other and the land.

“Together, what is the work that we’re going to do to make things better? Not only for us: we have a responsibility to those faces that are coming out of the earth, so that when they will be born, they will inherit a happy, safe, clean, beautiful, peaceful, loving home,” he said. “It’s a personal responsibility. It’s a personal choice.”

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