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In Focus

People, Planet, Place

Addressing climate change through community action

Courses from the Leadership Studies program and Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies are helping students understand the ramifications of climate change through interdisciplinary approaches, both inside and outside the classroom.

Seeking sustainable leadership

Leadership Studies 445, Environmental Leadership, looks at the intersection of people, place and planet by taking a holistic approach to leadership education with a focus on sustainability and the environment.

The course is student-driven, as Professor Cheyenne Luzynski strives to empower students to engage with the environment around them while exploring their personal and professional interests.

“Something that really hit me as missing from our core curriculum in the Leadership Studies program was an environmental collective global perspective,” said Luzynski, a professor in both the Leadership Studies program and the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies. “In the world of leadership education, it is common to frame leadership within the context of an organization. This course looks beyond the role of organizations and explores their responsibility to the greater collective and shared environment. That was the purpose of this class – to ask what are the consequences? How can we change individual behaviors and relationships with the natural world? What are the engagements to areas of the natural world?”

The curriculum integrates Western and nonwestern perspectives with African American, Latino and Native American influences.

“Students are encouraged to connect to their cultural upbringings and to give homage to their own experiences. They reflect on what has been their relationship or introduction to the environment prior to the course,” Luzynski said. “When students connect to their own cultural roots and what that means, they begin to learn how other people come into understanding place and environment differently.”

The course begins with introductions to general leadership perspective that involve the environment, followed by a cultural unit.

“Learning how a person's cultural upbringing shapes their mind is fascinating. This unit helped me to become more aware of my own cultural biases and how to recognize and stop them from creating an unnecessary judgment,” said Tyler Richards, an environmental geoscience major. “I believe that, as humans, we should be one with the Earth. Having taken this course, I have a greater understanding of how people from all different cultures and backgrounds have to come together to create a sustainable future.”

The cultural unit culminates with a comparative analysis of United Nations sustainability goals, as students write a profile analyzing a UN goal through the lens of two countries.

“I enjoyed learning the frameworks of unfamiliar leadership styles. Being born in the U.S. and serving eight years in the Marine Corps, our cultural style of leadership is very ingrained within my beliefs,” said Regents Bachelor of Arts student Nicholas Ailport. “This course allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and experience different types of leadership. This will undoubtedly help me to become a better leader.”

Throughout the semester, students are encouraged to step outside and maintain a nature journal of their outdoor experiences. A highlight is a nature and yoga retreat at the West Virginia Botanical Garden.

Group doing yoga in a circle outside

Students from LDR 445 practice yoga at the West Virginia Botanic Garden.

“I thought this course would be a perfect way to really immerse myself in West Virginia’s outdoor draw before graduation,” said Cleveland native Maura Flynn. “I wasn’t expecting to start enjoying being outdoors, but this class takes all of those preconceived notions and ideas that we have and really tears them down in the best way possible. We understand the deep cultural aspects that dictate our beliefs and challenge those to gain new perspectives. We also take the time to reflect on them while putting them into practice in our daily lives.”

For many, it’s their first time spending extended time outdoors as adults.

“It’s a nature deficit. They have to spend at least one hour per week unplugged in a natural setting. And they just write, observe and reflect,” said Luzynski. “There are some really interesting interdisciplinary assignments that tap into many of these mediums. We are trying to tackle the overly medicated, anxious, depressed college student with access to the outdoors in a comfortable, somewhat required – because it’s class – way. We are getting them to connect with their own relationship to their culture and the environment because, in many ways, those are integrated, and only recently have we become very distant from that relationship as a society.”

The course concludes with a final project: mini-documentaries that bring awareness to an environmental issue, which the students choose.

Topics have included littering, single plastic use, vegan/vegetarianism and trout stocking in West Virginia streams and subsequent damage to natural habitats.

“I encourage students to explore what fascinates them,” Luzynski said. “The inspiration was what they needed to start talking about the environment and start the conversation to make it easy and digestible for all people – not just the scientists who we let take care of it and trust in that way.”

Taking action

Meanwhile, Instructor Andrea Soccorsi is taking a community action approach to helping students understand the effects of climate change. She is bringing her concerns about the environment and community organizing experience to the classroom in Multidisciplinary Studies 293A, People Versus the Planet: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Climate Change.

The fall 2019 class divided into groups to take on action projects.

“I presented the projects, and the students gravitated toward those they were most interested in,” Soccorsi said. “They got to know each other and made contacts in the community.”

One group worked with the Morgantown Green Team to interview local businesses about their reactions to using alternatives to single-use bags and other items. The Green Team will present these ideas to the Morgantown City Council for approval.

Another group collaborated with WVU’s Office of Sustainability to assess where outdoor recycling bins are needed on campus, research the budget and complete a mapping project.

“I think sustainability is a great interdisciplinary challenge for students,” said Traci Knabenshue, the office’s director. “The project touched on industrial engineering, finance, urban planning and even supply chain management. They completed mapping for exterior recycling bins on campus and prioritized the highest-volume areas for installation. We’ll be using this study to plan where and in what time frame we can strengthen our recycling offerings in outside areas of campus.”

The class visited Blackwater Canyon to observe how climate change is affecting the canyon, native hemlocks in the area and the Cheat River salamander. They traveled to the canyon, located in Tucker County, on October 19 for a field experience. The trip inspired a partnership for the spring 2020 semester’s class.

“Although West Virginia is landlocked, we are still suffering from the changes caused by climate change. That was very evident in the class trips we made to Blackwater Canyon and the West Virginia Botanic Garden,” said Wrenna Dorrer, a senior international studies and interdisciplinary studies major from Clarksburg. “We discussed endangered native species and some mitigation approaches that activists are taking to protect our state’s nature. I think it’s important for everyone to be aware of these issues, even if you don’t necessarily believe that you would change your lifestyle. Climate change is a real issue and will continue to be prominent in our lives and in the next generation. It’s important for us to recognize the signs and be prepared to adapt in the future, not only in our everyday lives but also in our professional lives.”

Three students listening to woman speaking in a store
MDS 293A students visit River Fair Trade in downtown Morgantown.

In addition to their community action projects, the class visited the WVU Core Arboretum for a guided hike about how seasonal development is affected by climate change.

“I wanted to get out of the classroom. I wanted the students to go outside and get real-world experiences,” said Soccorsi. “We are all nature-deprived. I wanted the class to be all about getting out into the world because we sit in the classroom enough.”

These courses are just as much introductions to interdisciplinary thinking as they are introductions to global climate issues, Soccorsi explained.

“An important component of these courses is the transdisciplinary aspect – thinking about stakeholders other than those of us in academia. We often think of these issues as science issues, assuming that because the scientists are dealing with it, we don’t have to do anything. But we can be making individual changes,” Soccorsi said. “That’s why it is important to look at those transdisciplinary approaches.

In other words, not just the disciplines themselves, but what is interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity and how do we bring in stakeholders to create some sort of action that enables change.”

Because of the success of the course, Multidisciplinary Studies 293A was selected as an Honors College Foundations course for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Cultivating new worldviews

The small sizes of both Environmental Leadership and People Versus the Planet fostered an interdisciplinary learning environment.

“I’ve really enjoyed what a close-knit class we became because there were only about 12 of us. When we were deciding what college to attend, small class sizes are always a draw, but that doesn’t matter if the class format is just a professor presenting to you in every class followed by exams and assignments,” said Flynn, a journalism major who completed Leadership Studies 445 as part of her minor. “Dr. Luzynski really emphasizes interaction, though, which makes that class size so important that we’re able to build such incredible relationships.”

The interdisciplinary experience from People Versus the Planet helped geography and Chinese studies double major Brandon Taylor expand his career options.

“Taking this class has helped me to step into different fields and to understand the environmental issues they face as well as the solutions these different disciplines bring to the table. I was surprised to learn just how much more understanding different disciplines can give you when examining a topic, especially topics with which you are already familiar,” said Taylor, a Barbour County native.

“Learning about environmental issues and climate change has shown me just how important maintaining our planet and natural resources really is. Climate change is the most important crisis facing the world today, and the effects we already see will become more drastic and catastrophic over time. For me, it’s important to study these issues because there are solutions that can be implemented, and we can make a system that helps the planet and everybody on it."