Sustainable Sparks: Stephanie Leite on learning for the future

A woman with short hair, picture from the shoulders up, looks into the camera while standing in front of a brick building.
Image by Siddhi Aubeeluck.
Published: 25 May 2023

How do we encourage respirology residents to consider climate change when they develop treatment plans? What tools do future elementary school teachers need to bring environmental education into their classrooms? What latest advancements in synthetic biology could help students develop solutions to real-world sustainability issues?

These are just some of the questions that teams of McGill instructors and graduate students tried to answer as part of the inaugural Sustainability Education Fellows cohort. The goal of this pilot program, which wrapped up in early May, was to challenge participants from any discipline to design or redesign a course to include sustainability at its core. Along the way, they received support and training from experts in the Faculty of Education (Department of Integrated Studies in Education – DISE), the Office of SustainabilityTeaching and Learning Services, the Office of Science Education, and the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic).

A major advocate and key developer of this program is PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar Stephanie Leite, whose research at DISE focuses on transformative climate change education. In conversation with the Office of Sustainability, Leite offers insight on the unique role graduate students can play when it comes to making sustainability an integral part of higher education.

What led you to get involved in sustainability?

I finished my undergraduate degree 20 years ago and, at the time, I naively believed that climate change was something for future generations to worry about.

More recently, reading these major IPCC reports coming out about climate change really influenced my decision to go back to graduate school and learn about how education fits into all of this. My research now is about expanding the concept of climate change education, ways of rethinking education for a climate-altered world, and the role of education to either perpetuate unsustainable actions or transform worldviews to improve things.

You’re also working to embed sustainability in the curriculum of courses at McGill, ranging from health geography and dietetics to urban resource consumption and supply chains. How did this project come about, and how does it fit into the broader vision for a more sustainable campus?

The Sustainability Education Fellows grew out of a series of conversations that were happening on campus before I arrived about how to create learning opportunities that implement the education goals outlined in McGill’s Sustainability Strategy. It started with individuals from different offices and faculties getting together to talk about how they could support each other’s efforts. From this, a group of us realized we were all interested in embedding sustainability into our curriculum more, so we started looking at how to make that happen.

Thanks to the Sustainability Projects Fund, we were able to fund 23 Faculty and Student Fellows who worked on increasing where and how much you can learn about sustainability at McGill. The goal is to work toward having sustainability considered in all disciplines, rather than being an isolated topic.

What role do you think graduate students play in terms of creating sustainable change on campus?

I think grad students are in a unique position because we’re able to look at the bigger picture from both sides. We’re students, but a lot of times we’re also instructors. We know what it feels like to be a student and have pressure from assignments and exams. And at the same time, we know how difficult it can be to be an instructor. By being part of both sides, grad students can provide insight on curriculum changes that work best for everyone.

We also hope that the Student Sustainability Education Fellows take the approaches and lessons learned from this program into whatever they do next. We need people to start thinking more strategically of all the possibilities for learning about sustainability that are not part of a formal university or school.

Engagement from graduate students on campus tends to be lower than other groups. Why do you think this is, and how can we encourage more?

In my own cohort in the Faculty of Education, we have students who have just finished a bachelor’s or master’s degree and are starting a PhD, and students who have decades of experience in various careers or are working full-time and studying in the evenings. So, in terms of time commitment and lifestyle, it’s a big range. Grad students also have a different relationship with campus and student life in general. For example, I sometimes go two or three weeks without being on campus because I have a kid and I’m not teaching or taking classes.

Part of improving engagement is just making sure we feel that connection to the McGill community. The response from students interested in the Sustainability Education Fellows program has been overwhelming. As a pilot program, in our early conversations, we wondered if anyone would apply. But in the end, we had more students apply than we could fund. That shows me that the interest is there, and people were just waiting for an opportunity and incentive. The more opportunities offered to graduate students, the more welcoming campus will feel.

To learn more about the Sustainability Education Fellows program and the courses that were (re)designed by the 2022-2023 cohort, visit the Office of Sustainability website.

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