Education for Sustainability Through the UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network

By: Shanti Belaustegui Pockell

On January 1st 2016, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into action. The agenda set 17 particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to build a more just and resilient future for the planet and those who inhabit it. Among 17 SDGs is Goal 4, which aims to, “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” More specifically,  SDG 4.7 seeks to:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

With this in mind, how are California’s universities putting sustainable development at the center of their learning?

One budding initiative is the UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network (KAN) for Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education and Action. KAN emerged out of UC President Janet Napolitano’s goal for the University of California to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. Enacted by the Faculty Engagement and Education Working Group section for carbon neutrality, KAN is one aspect of the carbon neutrality initiative and aims to increase faculty engagement within the initiative.

Their purpose statement is: “The emerging UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network for Transformative Climate and Sustainability Education and Action is a collaborative effort of UC and CSU educators to scale out and intensify California students’ literacy in climate change, climate justice, carbon neutrality/greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and sustainability.” The KAN project seeks to merge pre-existing sustainability efforts made by UC and CSU schools as well as inspire new ones, “for the mutual advantage of California students.”

KAN brings together faculty from the UCs and CSUs who have shown a passion for climate change, sustainability, justice, and education to attend workshops and collaborate on creating resources to progress and better education. I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray, the leader of the Environmental Studies program at Humboldt State University (HSU) and the CSU program faculty leader for KAN. She said, “We are now just seeing what all the different campuses are doing in different ways, and there is a real sense that possibilities are limitless.”

Dr. Ray also clarified that the endgame of what KAN is doing is not fully solidified yet; rather goals will emerge organically from four workshops across the state that recently finished. She explained that, while there is no system wide plan of action, there will be an outgrowth of resources and energy around the network as a result of the workshops. Dr. Ray expressed that at the very minimum, those who have participated in KAN intend to generate an online open-access resource that will provide access to assets such as curriculum development, best practices for education for sustainability, and links to resources for funding. In June, KAN will create an online and publicly available virtual conference where everyone who has participated in the workshops will present what they intend to implement on their own campuses and beyond. Dr. Ray noted that, “People are learning and getting ideas from one another, but every campus is different so [outcomes] will be very case-by-case specific.” She stated, “Just by virtue of being involved in the network, I now have a huge list of best practices and ideas. Now it is up to me, to start to find ways to share this.”  

Through the KAN workshops, faculty have been able to identify what needs to be changed in the system to improve the ways in which UCs and CSUs tackle education for sustainability. Dr. Ray mentioned that he first call to action that emerged from the workshops was to increase interdisciplinary learning. When difficult questions arise in KAN such as: How can radical innovation around sustainability and climate change happen? Dr. Ray answers, “If you buy the argument, which I do, that the only way to address a wicked problem is by getting all the tools you possibly can together, and that siloing out is perpetuating the problem, then you need to create the infrastructural incentives to break down those boundaries between disciplines.” Interdisciplinary education would combine knowledge from various areas of expertise–notably the humanities, arts, and creative fields, not just policy or social science, with natural sciences– to create holistic and inclusive solutions.

However important interdisciplinary studies are in education for sustainability, bureaucratic barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration exist that make it tremendously difficult for educators to navigate. For instance, when trying to implement interdisciplinary studies, Dr. Ray noted that questions arise such as “How do you fund co-teaching?” or, “How do you get an interdisciplinary class in the books?” When solving these questions a lot of “bureaucratic bean counting stuff” arises that has to do with different disciplines belonging to different colleges within a larger university, which pose a real challenge to increasing interdisciplinary education.

Dr. Ray also brought up that “there is a real sense of proprietary ego attached to disciplinary pride, and not wanting to corrupt yourself by diluting your work by doing interdisciplinary work.” In the past, there have been tensions between cultural studies and the environmental sciences, for example, that revolve around differing views about objectivity, neutrality, and credibility, as well as  the racialized discriminatory past of the sciences. While these disciplines do have a lot of reasons to be disconnected, Dr. Ray did articulate that by having conversations about differing habits and ideologies within disciplines, she feels that tensions can be overcome, and important insights can emerge from various fields of studies working together. She said, “I don’t need to change a scientist’s mind, we just need to figure out how to work together.”

There is also a sense at KAN that in order to incorporate interdisciplinary education in the classroom you must reach students’ hearts and minds, which also means addressing the grief that accompanies students’ awakening to the extent of the planet’s problems. Education for sustainability may simply not be a priority to students if what they are learning does not seem relevant to them, or that their emotional response to the material is secondary to the content. Dr. Ray said that, “The education process of articulating the interconnections of things is going to create better institutions that do interdisciplinary work. Not a lot of classes are doing that.”

Dr. Ray has already been successful in implementing an interdisciplinary and co-taught course at Humboldt State University. This year, she co-taught a new Environmental Studies/Geography course with physical geography professor Dr. Rosemary Sheriff. The class, “Climate Change: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” (ENST 480 / GEOG 473) exposed students to interdisciplinary perspectives of climate change as both an environmental and social problem. The class was taught using approaches from the natural sciences as well as the arts and humanities, and was extremely successful. Dr. Ray concludes that although pushing back disciplinary and bureaucratic issues is a challenge, it just takes motivation from administration and teachers from other disciplines to achieve, and is worth the effort.

Dr. Ray mentioned many UC and CSU schools are facing a challenge implementing more effective sustainable education because of integration between sustainability and academia, particularly with regards to infrastructure. At HSU, infrastructure for sustainability education is prominent. With student-run programs such as the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (CCAT) and the Waste Reduction and Resource Awareness Program (WRRAP), finding ways to actively engage in sustainable buildings and institutional practices is easy and accessible to students. However, Dr. Ray notes that this a huge challenge for other institutions. She said that, “In a fantasy world, the infrastructure would be intertwined with academics in order to increase student engagement around sustainability issues.”

Another change the UCs and CSUs are aspiring to make is increasing efficacy among students through community based learning. Dr. Ray expressed that, “You can bring a lot of students in that want to save the world, and have a lot of great notions around these things, but when they learn about the scale of the problem it becomes very daunting and depressing.

So, the question becomes, ‘how can we build the emotional resilience to deal with these things?’ As Dr. Ray pointed out, community based learning is a solution. She said, “You simply have to get kids in the community so they can feel the efficacy and scale out social change. You are not going to get anywhere if people walk into your class and see it will be depressing and say, ‘see you later,’ or it’s all theory and no action.” Through the renewed energy created by KAN, UC and CSU faculty are committed to developing more community based learning programs to increase getting students out into the community, and the community on the campus.

This notion of a need for increased efficacy within sustainability education does not just come from faculty. Environmental Studies student and Humboldt State University Sustainability Champion of 2017 Madi Whaley spoke at the HSU KAN workshop in April about what she feels needs to be further implemented in university education for sustainability.

Whaley stated, “I have realized recently that I don’t think I have the understanding that I think I need of where I can be most effective.” She said, “The Environmental Studies program has done a good job with intersectionality- addressing multifaceted forms of oppression- and has done a good job in identifying intersectional issues and deconstructing issues, but I think that something that I need, and a lot of other students need, is more constructive solutions and strategy built into the curriculum.”

Whaley noted that some of these constructive solutions might include looking at case studies of intersectional solutions, or intersectional strategies and concrete avenues for change that could inspire hope in students. Whaley mentioned, “I have a number of professors who talk about climate change and all of the terrible ecological degradation that is happening, and they say, ‘it is your job to fix it.’ So yeah, we are the generation that needs to fix and address these problems, but when we are not given a platform to do that as we are learning about these problems it is really disempowering, and makes me worry that in the future we won’t be able to work on those constructive solutions or rise to the occasion. So, for the future of addressing climate change, I think we need to start now to empower each other in the classroom and empower each other to change.”

As students, it is of utmost importance to realize our role in what KAN is developing. Dr. Ray stressed that although what KAN is trying to do is fix institutions,the network is mostly trying to implement changes that emerge directly from student feedback that teachers receive in and outside of the classroom setting. Every KAN participant was chosen because they prioritized student voices. Our voice matters, and we have to start reaching out to our faculty and telling them what we need. Below you can find a list of UC and CSU faculty who are part of the KAN. If there is anything you feel you need to better your education for sustainability, or if you simply want to find out more about KAN, you should reach out.

Gabriela Nunez – CSU Fullerton
Nicole Seymour – CSU Fullerton
Lily House Peters – CSU Long Beach
Lucy HG Solomon – CSU San Marcos
Kristina Shull – UC Irvine
Jessica Pratt – UC Irvine
Julie Ferguson – UC Irvine
Jade Sasser – UC Riverside
Stevie Ruiz – CSU Northridge
Rosa RiVera Furumoto – CSU Northridge
Amanda Baugh – CSU Northridge
Allison Mattheis – CSU Los Angeles
Valerie Wong – CSU Los Angeles
David Pellow – UC Santa Barbara
David Cleveland – UC Santa Barbara
Ken Hiltner – UC Santa Barbara
Daniel Fernandez – CSU Monterey Bay
Victoria Derr – CSU Monterey Bay
Corin Slown – CSU Monterey Bay
Ryan Alaniz – Cal Poly SLO
Eugene Cordero – San Jose State University
David Shaw – UC Santa Cruz
Summer Gray – UC Santa Cruz
Chelsea Arnold – UC Merced
Sarah Jaquette Ray – Humboldt State University
Phillip Klasky – San Francisco State University
Mark Stemon – CSU Chico
Enrique Salmon – CSU East Bay
Sahar Nouredini – CSU East Bay
George Roderick – UC Berkeley
Stephen Wheeler – UC Davis
Helene Margolis – UC Davis School of Medicine

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