Climate Change: A New, Interdisciplinary Course at Bay

The Bay School Blog sat down with Humanities Instructor Robin Workman and Science Instructor Jonna Smyth in the midst of their preparations for an all-new, project-based class of their own design. Combining science and social science with an emphasis on politics and ethics, the pilot class will be co-taught and fully interdisciplinary, making it the first of its kind at Bay.

How did the idea for this course come about?

Robin: During faculty meeting, we did an exercise where you rotate through different people and brainstorm with a colleague about your pie-in-the-sky idea for an interdisciplinary course. Jonna and I ended up being on the same page about sustainability and climate change. And going back to year one of the school, these ideas were in line with the school’s mission and focus.

Jonna: I’m a little bit biased because I teach environmental science, but it seems to me that of any topic you could possibly pick in the modern world, climate change brings together a variety of different disciplines in a really seamless and authentic way. I think as an interdisciplinary topic, it’s hard to beat.

What are your goals for the class?

Jonna: I think our guiding question is, “Why is climate change important, and what are the obstacles to creating change?” From some of my discussions with students taking the class, I know that when somebody says, “I don’t believe climate change is caused by human activities,” our students would like to feel empowered to respond. We’d like to give them that baseline understanding and give them that ammunition, but then also really make them aware of why this is such a difficult thing to tackle.

Robin: We all can identify the problem, but the question is, “What are we going to do about it?” Not just individually but also nationally and politically. We hope students will feel a sense of efficacy around their ability to affect change despite the fact that a lot of the change has to happen systemically, at the government level. We hope to empower kids with that sense of efficacy.

What are some of the topics your students will explore in this course?

Jonna:

  • What evidence indicates that climatic patterns are currently changing and that observed changes are due to anthropogenic causes rather than natural variability?
  • Given our current understanding of climate change, what are the predicted consequences with regard to sea level changes, shifts in precipitation and storm patterns, changes in the availability of arable land, biodiversity and the ability of the planet to provide sufficient resources to support the current population?
  • What level of certainty do scientists have that their predictions are correct?

Robin:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of current forms of climate change governance? Is cap and trade a viable way forward?
  • How is climate change a social justice issue? Assess the varying impact of climate change on indigenous and minority communities around the world.
  • Separating myth from fact in the climate change debate/what is the media’s role in creating a false debate?

I know that this course is built around a project.  What will the project component look like?

Jonna: The project itself is an activism project. They have to pick something that they think is going to lead them one step toward a solution. It needs to be something that they can share with the broader community. The outcome of the projects can be diverse. We have a list of possible outcomes of the project – possible ways the project might take form:

  • a divestment campaign
  • a film about the problems related to climate change and possible solutions
  • an elementary education program
  • a letter-writing campaign
  • a prospectus piece to be submitted to Youth Radio
  • a spoken word piece or dance to be performed for the campus community and posted on YouTube
  • an idea for a climate change app
  • a tree-planting or gardening campaign

And what about the research component of the course?

Jonna: Regardless of the projects they choose, students will have to master quite a bit of specific content. They can’t just come up with ideas out of the blue; they’ll have to do quite a bit of critical analysis just to come up with a good project that’s actually doable.

Robin: We’ll ask our students to look really carefully at academic journal articles that represent a whole range of perspectives on their issue and to detail those perspectives in their notes. They will also need to explore and assess a range of solutions (which will, hopefully, inform their action projects).

Jonna: We’re asking them to look at academic journal articles, which are challenging for people beyond college to access. Students have to be okay with not understanding every single word, but getting what they can and incorporating that and constructing their own understanding as best they can with the information in these articles.

What kinds of resources might students reference?

How will this class be different from existing classes on climate change?

Jonna: I took a climate change class over the summer, but it was about science. The idea of actually merging and getting out of just the science world and specifically thinking about the other elements and other aspects is what’s missing. As long as people think about this as a science problem, the problem is not going to be solved. It’s not until it’s really clearly stated as a problem that everybody has to face and cope with and deal with that we’ll start finding answers.

Robin: Over the summer I tried to see what other models were out there. To Jonna’s point, most of them are approaching it from a science angle. Harvard has a really cool class that’s heavy on the social science piece. But I think that’s the exception not the rule.

Jonna: In fact, I don’t know of any other high school climate change courses. I’m sure they’re out there scattered around somewhere, but it’s not the norm.

Robin: We’re hoping that we create a model that other high schools can draw upon – maybe not the first iteration, because it will be a rough cut, but in time.

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