As sustainability grows in its intricacies and relevance, so does student interest in learning about and tackling the problems at its root. The Sustainability Education and Learning Committee (SELC), facilitated by the Sustainability Institute, creates opportunities for faculty to develop programs tailored to these interests at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
The 17 members of SELC compiled a report in 2019 to produce a structure for sustainability education at Ohio State, including participation from a variety of departments to ensure a well-rounded and comprehensive approach. Based on the findings, SELC established a temporary Sustainability Education Grant Program to support new and revised programs, whether they be majors, minors or certificates, centered around increasing interdisciplinary sustainability curriculum.
Matthew Birkhold, associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature, capitalized on this opportunity, leading the creation of the new Environmental Arts and Humanities minor, housed within the College of Arts and Sciences. The minor draws on courses from over ten departments and requires students to complete four of their choosing from at least three departments. Options range from studio art classes to history lectures to philosophy seminars.
“The Environmental Arts and Humanities minor combines methods and insights to explore relationships between humans and the environment, human epistemology and the environment, and the nature of this knowledge and its limitations,” Birkhold said. “It allows students to approach environmental problems from as many different angles as possible, opening their eyes to lenses that have really been missing from the traditional perspective on these issues.”
As a professor of German with a law degree from Columbia, Birkhold’s unique background allows him to analyze these wicked environmental problems through a distinctive viewpoint. His experiences have caused him to increasingly realize the importance of the humanities and arts to solving environmental challenges.
"Climate change is a very remote concept, temporally and spatially. The courses in this minor will not only bring students closer to the issue, but also teach them about equity, justice and fairness,” Birkhold added.
The Environmental Arts and Humanities minor does not create new classes, but groups together valuable existing courses from departments across the university into a cohesive learning experience. The Sustainability Institute and SELC act central resources for broad knowledge of existing course offerings, which Birkhold utilized in compiling the minor program course requirements.
Birkhold is not the only one who leveraged both the Sustainability Education Grant Program and SELC’s course repository to create a new sustainability program offering. Environmental anthropologist Anna Willow also designed the Sustainable and Resilient Social and Ecological Systems (SARSES) certificate for Ohio State’s Marion campus using these same tools.
SARSES will function as a degree enhancement or professional credentialing program. It consists of a lead-in course (Anthropology 3050), general education sustainability course, a one credit capstone reflection, and a variety of multi-departmental options. Willow herself will teach the lead-in anthropology course, which is a student-oriented learning opportunity. Those enrolled will get to take the reins and choose their own research topics and craft individual solutions to high-stakes environmental complexities.
“As an environmental anthropologist by training, I’ve conducted research on how people respond to natural resource extraction and environmental change they didn’t ask for,” Willow explained. “An anthropological approach highlights the social and philosophical underpinnings that come from the variety of ways to address problems, particularly environmental ones. Distinct cultures prefer different approaches and handle different but equally valid changes.”
When planning out the certificate, Willow started reviewing course descriptions across a series of colleges and reviewed the SELC repository of sustainability courses. Then, by focusing on her ultimate goals, she worked backwards to specify the details of her certificate.
"I’m thrilled to have the chance to design and teach the lead-in course, especially because I will be combining things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and delivering it in an exciting way where students get to be the problem-solvers,” Willow said.
Story by Aurora Ellis, student communications assistant