The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down almost everything. For Diane Dechief, PhD, and Marcy Slapcoff of the Office of Science Education (OSE), the two leads of the new Faculty of Science course FSCI198: Climate Crisis and Climate Actions, there was a positive aspect to the delays.
Dechief and Slapcoff were already working on developing the course in early 2020 when the pandemic hit, putting their initiative on pause. But slowing down its development, they said, ultimately made more space for fruitful consultations, focus groups with students and finetuning the details of the ambitious, cross-disciplinary course. Now, after a first successful offering in the Fall 2022 semester, the two organizers are happy with the course design.
“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!”
It was also the perfect time for the course to be held, with the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) taking place in Montreal from December 7-19, 2022. Through the FSCI198 course, students could register for delegate passes to attend the conference, where they had the opportunity to interact with scientists, activists and policymakers.
A “climate-soup” of complementary perspectives
From the start, the course leads aimed to present students with a wide range of different viewpoints. “Early on in the development process, we were aware that none of us knows everything about the climate crisis,” said Dechief. “We had many meetings and conversations, but we thought that students would only have hope if they could hear as many different perspectives and solutions as possible.”
The course featured five instructors: Dechief, Science Communication Specialist for the OSE; Julia Freeman, Lecturer at the Bieler School of Environment; Natalya Gomez, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Geodynamics of Ice sheet – Sea level interactions; 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.
The unique model of the online course allowed the five instructors to teach simultaneously, simulating a panel of experts. Each instructor brought their own expertise and research experience to the course, and their perspectives were complemented by an array of guest speakers and students from various backgrounds. The majority of enrolled students were part of 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 different departments were also hired to work in pairs and run workshops throughout the course. 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.
Varied guest speakers
Guest speakers included experts in sustainability and policy, Indigenous land defenders including Eve Saint and Vanessa Gray, Mohawk Faith Keeper Kevin Ka’nahsohon Deer and Officer of the Order of Canada and Hockey Hall of Fame member Ken Dryden. The latter gave a speech during the course’s inaugural class, addressing the students with a message of hope.
“Climate change is starting to seem very personal to you. And it should,” Dryden said during his address. “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.”
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. It’s very important to have that mix of different knowledges.”
Pedagogy based on hope and respectful discourse
The primary goal of the course, which will be offered again in the 2023-24 year, is to enable students to find enough hope to want to engage with the climate crisis on an actionable level. 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. Dechief and Slapcoff hope that FSCI198 will attract more incoming students in its future iterations. “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,” said Slapcoff.
A key element of achieving that goal is to expose the students to respectful discourse. The course’s cross-disciplinary format modeled a space for respectful listening and dialogue, allowing 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 Dechief of the five-instructor model. “It makes them feel that they can engage in a similar, respectful way with their peers.”
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. It’s a personal responsibility. It’s a personal choice,” he said.
Students react to the course
Here’s what a few students had to say about completing the FSCI198 course:
Clara Bancel Cabiac, U1 BSc. Student in Microbiology and Immunology
“To me the main takeaway is that whatever field of study you work in, you can help with the climate crisis. There are so many ways to help and take a stand. As a Science student I had no idea that economists, politicians or sociologists could be involved in this action. I really think this message gives hope because it means that anyone, but most importantly everyone, can get involved. I really liked all the various speakers that shared about their own approach of the issue. I also loved the interview assignment and the final project with the action plan. It really got every student to be involved and I was impressed by the diversity of the project ideas! I was already concerned by the climate crisis, but this course really taught me that everyone can help in their own way, and some progress is made every day. It gave me hope, actually, to see so many students, professors and speakers involved in this course.”
Jérôme Gingras Debien, U3 BSc. Student In Biology:
“I would say my main takeaway from the course would simply be just how multifaceted and multidisciplinary the climate crisis is. As a biology student myself, it is very easy to focus on the impacts that climate change will have on ecosystems and animals, but the truth of the matter is that every single being, living or not, will feel the impacts of climate change. I really appreciated the discussions we would have in class, as it made me realize that, for one thing, I am not alone in trying to grasp and handle the issue of climate change. Many are just as confused as me, and 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. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed when looking at just how big the issue is, but it is important to keep in mind that I won’t be able to change the world. I’ll just do what feels right to me and focus on that.”
Shanon Lapointe, U3 BSc. student in Atmospheric Science
“I entered the course with a strong background of climate studies in the physical and scientific contexts. As a result, I appreciated the course content, which focused not so much on climate dynamics, but rather on environmental studies from other points-of-view (Indigenous knowledge systems, biodiversity and conservation, economics). My main takeaway is one of hope: this course was action-based and made climate action seem more accessible and tangible.”
Cameron Toy Kluger, U1 BSc. student
“My main takeaway from the course is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to climate change. As we learned from Indigenous, scientific, economic and many more viewpoints, the issue is extremely vast and requires action to disrupt our current socioeconomic system. I appreciated that no two days were the same in the course. 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.”
Kripa Vyas, U1 BSc. student in Physics
“FSCI198 gave me the opportunity to understand how different scientific disciplines interact with climate action. This changed how I plan to get involved in climate action in the future, since it showed me that there’s many ways to get involved. I appreciated the guest lecturers coming in to talk to us about how their career and research are involved in climate action.”
In case anyone is interested, the U1 physics course “Physics of Energy and the Environment” (PHYS228) is mostly about climate change and the transition to renewable energy. It only requires very low level physics knowledge. It gives students an up to date opportunity to understand the basic technical aspects of the current struggle for just energy transition.