Global Warming 'Teach-In'

At colleges, support for the green movement tends to come in the form of construction, pledges, investments and the like. Starting this month, you can add to that list "teach-ins."

January 17, 2008

At colleges, support for the green movement tends to come in the form of construction, pledges, investments and the like. Starting this month, you can add to that list "teach-ins."

As part of a national effort to promote environmental activism on campus, professors at more than 1,100 colleges have agreed to discuss issues relating to global warming in their classes on January 31 or take part in panels running throughout the day.

Focus the Nation, a project of the nonprofit Green House Network, is being organized on the macro level by a handful of recent college graduates with the help of professors and students who plan events on their campus. The initiative is based on the work of an economics professor at Lewis & Clark College.

At most participating campuses, pledges are coming from many professors -- in some cases 50 or more -- who are planning to modify their lectures, create shorter presentations or attend the panel discussions. Rather than planning evening rallies, professors are being asked to do the teaching during regular class hours.

“The concept is we don’t want these events to preach to the choir -- the people who would normally spend hours talking about global warming," said Alex Tinker, a spokesman for the initiative. "We're looking to get to the critical mass of students who aren't aware of the depth of the problem, and are just going to class that day."

Added Eban Goodstein, the Lewis & Clark economics professor who was the mastermind of the initiative: “The function of a teach-in is that it’s a statement by educators about what should be important to young people. By building it into the regular class day, we’re sending a strong signal that, hey, you should be paying attention to this."

On most campuses, events start the night before the teach-in, when professors and students watch a live Web cast addressing climate change issues and presented by Focus the Nation.

Organizers are providing faculty members with model lesson plans and panel topics that can be used in their presentations. Among the topics professors have chosen: a seminar on green investing and lectures on limits on power plant carbon dioxide pollution. The panels are designed so that professors talk for about 10 minutes on a topic in or close to their field.

Colleges are planning other events, including sustainability fairs and alternative-energy demonstrations that involve wind turbines and flex-fuel vehicles. Almost all the events are taking place toward the end of this month.

On some campuses, faculty involvement amounts to as little as passing along event information to students. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, however, roughly 150 professors have promised to either take part in the teach-in or dismiss class so that students can participate, according to Steven Marx, a professor of English who is helping to organize campus events -- among them a poetry slam and an art show.

Teach-in panels feature physics, architecture and engineering professors, and carry such titles as "The Science of Global Warming" and "Climate Change and the Individual."

“The event is a rallying point for a large number of faculty and students," Marx said.

John Calderazzo, a professor of English at Colorado State University who is helping to organizing the initiative on his campus, said the event gives professors who already work climate change topics into their classes the chance to help their colleagues think of ways to do the same.

"We had the feeling that there are an awful lot of people out there who are worried about climate change but don't know how to approach the subject," Calderazzo said.

The recent graduates who helped plan Focus the Nation spent much of last fall identifying professors across the country who would help them spread the word. Tinker said some faculty members were hesitant to get involved, particularly those that didn't see themselves as activists. His pitch: "We're not asking you to take a political position. We're asking you to share knowledge about global warming in a way that affects your discipline."

The two-day event at Colorado State is taking place in two large rooms in the student center. Roughly 50 professors are taking part in panel sessions that run throughout the days. Calderazzo said he is canceling both of his classes that are scheduled on Jan. 30 (the first day of the CSU event) and asking his nonfiction writing students to go to any part of the Focus days that they wish and write a report about the event.

Focus the Nation is part of a broader effort in which Calderazzo and others are building a network of faculty and researchers whose interests and research coalesce around climate change. The ultimate goal is a full-blown academic program for students.

Following the teach-in at Colorado State and on other campuses, students and faculty are being asked to attend roundtable discussions with politicians and eventually vote on a number of actions to take. Part of the idea behind the initiative is to motivate students to lobby their representatives about environmental issues.

Goodstein said he hopes faculty members will use a forum section on the initiative's Web site to discuss what types of panel topics worked and what didn't, and to plan future events.

Of course, some will argue that using the phrase "teach-in" to describe the climate change events doesn't do justice to the anti-war events of the 1960s.

“It’s such an evocative word – "teach-in" for me rings a lot of bells," Marx said. "That was the best part of the student movement in the 60s -- a movement I was a part of. I say 'teach-in," and probably one percent of students know what that references. But there's enough information [provided by Focus the Nation organizers] that I think they get the point."


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