On Tuesday, I spent two hours straight in a meeting. Normally, sitting still that long would be torture — that’s why I’m better at lab work than writing papers, and why my research ADD has produced about fifty half-finished thesis chapters.
But this meeting was different. We were assembled to talk about undergraduate education: specifically, how Stanford is remodeling its biology lab courses. I was present on the basis of my dubious authority as one of last spring’s ecology lab teaching assistants.
As I flipped through slides depicting the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, the plants and animals of our study system, and the rattlesnake I’d once chased off a path, I remembered how much fun it was to watch students discover ecology and learn how nature works. I remembered the joy of teaching, the moments of inspiration, sensations that linger long past the discomforts of dirty fingernails and sweaty backs.
Teaching is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and the most challenging duties of a graduate student. At any moment, you could inspire a student’s career or illuminate a light bulb of understanding. (Yes, it really does sound that romantic, until you’re sitting through a deserted office hour or hearing snores from the back corner of a classroom.)
The first hard lesson in teaching usually has to do with time. You learn to make tough cuts. Not all the exam material fits into the review session. The quarter doesn’t have enough weeks to cover all major topics.
It’s a problem that’s mirrored at the university level. Which classes should be part of a general education requirement? Should we be telling students what they need to know, or just offering them what they want to know? And what knowledge is critical to a citizen of this country? Of this planet?
As an ecologist, I have pretty strong opinions. These days, whether or not you agree with nine out of 10 scientists that humans are driving climate change, you’ve undoubtedly heard of global warming. But you might not feel comfortable with the scientific principles underlying the greenhouse effect or know why burning fossil fuels affects it. You may have heard we’re running out of those fossil fuels, but don’t know why. And if someone asked where today’s food and water came from, you might answer, “I don’t know.”
Well, you should.
The world is changing in ways that will make our high-consumption lifestyles impossible — in ways that, quite frankly, could render our species extinct. And you really ought to know why.
Let me give Stanford — and our country’s gradually shifting political attitudes — some credit. You’ve probably absorbed some knowledge of environmental issues through osmosis. But out in the “real world,” you’ll be buffeted by op-eds, propaganda and media snippets that either assume a fundamental grasp of these issues or leverage your ignorance. So you should be taught, systematically, in your first year of college, the fundamental truths of how the world works and how human activity shapes these workings. And you should learn some basic fact-checking skills — or at least practice being skeptical.
Still, only 30 percent of the U.S. population will earn a bachelor’s degree. And 100 percent of the U.S. population should understand the basics of environmental issues. We must go deeper than the university setting to rekindle that American desire for knowledge, advancement and science.
It could begin in elementary school — field trips to the zoo and field trips to local nature reserves. “Nature” isn’t foreign; it’s not limited to giraffes in Africa. “Nature” is just outside the city limits — and when we notice it there, we notice it in our backyards, in our everyday lives and finally, in ourselves.
Maybe then we’ll show more empathy as we turn to the next task, understanding how we’re exceeding the bounds of nature. High schools used to make time for home ec, something once considered critical to the future of the American household. Now, they need to make time for enviro ec, critical to the future of the planet. Everyone needs to know what an “ecological footprint” is and how to use it to calculate their impact on food, water and energy resources. Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel wrote a brilliant book on the matter 15 years ago. It’s high school-level reading, and bridges humanities (what’s our responsibility to ourselves? to Earth?), social sciences (why do different cultures use resources differently?), physical sciences (how much and how fast?) and the arts (how do we represent and communicate these issues?). Something for everyone in one practical package.
Then again, we live in a nation with states that restrict the teaching of evolution. We live in a culture where it’s okay to be afraid of math (compare the stigma of illiteracy to the jocular attitudes of the innumerate) and, occasionally, admirable to be ignorant. For all that we do to revamp Stanford’s lab courses, what’s the future of science in a place like that?
More importantly, what’s the future of the world?
To add to the environmental curriculum or get a copy of the reading list, email Holly at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.