(Green) Actions Speak Louder than Words
A rally call for higher ed to step up environmental efforts
The world is changing at a rapid pace. In the next hundred years, climate change will increase the global temperature between 2.5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In addition, precipitation patterns will become wonkier, hurricanes will become stronger, Arctic ice will disappear, and sea levels will rise, just to name a few of the world’s upcoming challenges, all brought from human-made climate change. Seventy-two percent of adults in the United States believe climate change is happening, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCC). And while 77 percent of US adults believe schools should teach about climate change, according to YPCC, only 35 percent have discussions about climate change. As college and university educators, and stewards who share the earth, we have a duty to discuss environmental issues, including waste reduction, climate change, and other ecological threats, with our students and the public.
I’m Rachel, and I’m a new lecturer at the University of North Georgia (UNG) Dahlonega campus, a liberal arts and military college in the mountains of North Georgia, where I also earned my bachelor of science degree in biology. I’m a first-generation college student who recently finished my doctorate in plant biology at the University of Georgia (UGA). I’m not a perfect human, but my family attempts to be environmentally conscious. We swapped out plastic sandwich bags for beeswax wraps. We recycle (which, spoiler alert, isn’t as green as it looks) and attempt to cut down on single-use plastics. I get most of my clothes from secondhand shops and enjoy participating in “swap” events, such as the spring clothing and book swaps hosted by Athens, Georgia, local Totally Taylored, for which participants bring gently used items to trade. Despite these efforts, I’m only one person living imperfectly. I still crave fancy to-go coffees, buy way too much lotion in plastic bottles, and pay most of my bills via paper check and envelope. While some of my actions have created positive consequences, I can broaden the little bits of good I do by using my position as an educator to spread awareness and enact change.
This piece is more than a reflection and discussion of the role of liberal education in informing students and the public on important environmental topics; it’s a rally call to college and university educators. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a biologist to help bring these ideas to fruition!
Climate Action Ideas for Educators at Colleges and Universities
Host a Science Café
What exactly is a science café? According to the Athens Science Café, for which I served as program and art director between late 2018 and mid-2021, science cafés “are conversations and not lectures.” Every month in Athens, faculty, students (graduate and undergraduate), and members of the general public meet at the bar Little Kings Shuffle Club to enjoy a talk by a guest speaker on a science topic. Speakers include students, professors, professionals, and local business owners. The café’s mission is to “facilitate a dialogue between scientists and the community.” Within an hour slot, the speaker presents for about thirty minutes and spends the remaining thirty minutes answering questions and leading community discussion. Talks need to be clear and avoid science jargon so the general community can appreciate the work being done on a given issue. Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, a packed crowd of fifty or more attended. The café is slowly building back up to that, advertising talks through word of mouth, email listservs, flyers, and social media.
Science cafés aren’t unique to Athens, Georgia. They’re global! You can find one close to you at sciencecafes.org. Or you can start one! These are great vehicles for anyone to learn more about the environment. Past environmentally based talks the Athens Science Café has done include “Oil in Deep Water: The Gulf’s Response to the BP Oil Spill” by UGA oceanographer Samantha Joye; “Oceans of Waste: Life in Plastic, Not Fantastic” by UGA environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck; “Not Composed Yet” by Kristen Baskin from Let Us Compost, which works to make composting more accessible to local residents; and “Tasted, Not Wasted: Urban Foraging” with Concrete Jungle, an Atlanta-based organization that supplies fresh produce for communities through—you guessed it—urban foraging.
With my new role at my alma mater, I plan to become involved in the science café scene in Dahlonega. This small mountain town hosted numerous climate science talks in the past few years. Your town will also have awesome people who can give talks. Maybe you are one of those people! Not every talk has to focus on the environment. I’ve given an example of a broad platform that can inform and open doors to important conversations. Through the engaging platform of a science café, college and university educators can share their expertise with the community in a welcoming, fun atmosphere.
Research backs up my enthusiasm for science cafés. The events increase community engagement and promote scientific literacy, according to a 2014 Journal of Clinical and Translational Science article. Furthermore, getting STEM students to participate in these cafés helps the students improve their science communication skills, according to a 2014 article from the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. Empowering our students to feel comfortable with science communication will create a positive educational feedback loop.
So, go get involved. You don’t have to give a talk, but you can help coordinate a café, find speakers, and even host the event.
Participate in Citizen Science
Citizen science shows how a community can play a part in research and have a significant impact on scientific progress. The National Geographic Society defines citizen science as “the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge.” I’ve found citizen science to be an invaluable resource for connecting students to science and furthering research while maintaining a community outlook. Educators and researchers can crowdsource public participation for studies and use citizen science platforms for class projects so students can examine phenomena such as bird migration or pollinator community composition.
I love using citizen science data in my own work. Currently, I’ve been using citizen science to explore color variation in the herbaceous species Geranium maculatum. Using photographs from the popular citizen science website iNaturalist.org (a super cool site that allows anyone to upload a photo of a species they come across in the wild with location data and get help from the online iNaturalist community to identify it), I work with students at UGA in our lab to segment images by color. Our aim is to document geographic floral color variation. We get a broader spread of the species distribution this way compared to traditional fieldwork. Researchers in our lab, who include two undergraduates, have also been examining herbarium records—archives of pressed, dried plants—that have been digitized to the online site of SouthEast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC), a consortium of more than two hundred herbaria in the United States. These records originally came from students, faculty, and members of the public with a keen interest in taxonomy. In our lab, we’ve used the herbarium collections to compare changes in bloom time in our study species over the past hundred years.
iNaturalist provides information on a variety of topics, which can be searched via inaturalist.org/projects. Biodiversity, migrations, and species monitoring are all feasible datasets to find or cultivate with the help of your students and the greater university community. For example, the UGA Bird Collision Project lets anyone document bird deaths due to crashes into campus windows, with the ultimate goal of promoting use of tinted films to prevent bird collisions at UGA.
In biology, we use the term plant blindness, which refers to an underappreciation for plants. Animals tend to attract the spotlight. If you bring a person outside and ask them to tell you what they see, they will usually mention squirrels, birds, the sky, and maybe a person. What they won’t tell you is the many species of plants: grasses, trees, weeds, and flowers. As a teaching assistant during graduate school, I helped my principal investigator with the course “Flowers.” While we taught some plant biology majors, most class members were medically focused, because the course met one of the requirements for a biology degree. In addition to the course content, we wanted to get students outside to observe plants. We offered a bonus credit opportunity, “Documenting Georgia Spring,” for which students photographed wild flowering plants and participated in a small discussion on what they thought pollinated them. I had students upload photographs to iNaturalist so they could later show their classmates the diversity of species they found and where they geographically observed the plants. I recently asked a past student, Deanna Negru, whether her experience with this activity made her appreciate plants more.
“I loved it,” she told me. “It was fun trying to look for stuff that was blooming, and it made me realize there were more things to appreciate than I thought. And even now I’m always trying to notice what’s blooming and just gain more of a sense of appreciation for flowers and nature.”
This is just one example of how we can transform students from passive learners into active participants in science!
Engaging in citizen science is an easy way for people to connect with the world around them and become more aware of the environmental crisis we’re facing. And the data potential is nearly endless and helps answer questions about our world, including how to address climate change, as we document changes over time in species distribution, plant blooming, temperature, precipitation, and other factors. In another example of citizen science, the Climate Change Education Exchange offers different projects for multiple age groups to participate in.
Get Engaged on Campus
University campuses are big places, and likely yours is already involved in environmentally friendly initiatives. Sharing resources and advocating for changes is critical to helping turn negative environmental practices into positive ones. A few years ago, UNG installed water bottle refill stations, which saved the equivalent of 18,268 plastic water bottles from a single residential dorm in seven weeks. This is huge! More than 18,000 plastic water bottles were saved from being dumped in a landfill! Landfill? you ask. Can’t students recycle them? Ah, yes, but recycling isn’t as green as it appears to be. First off, a lot of confusion exists over what can and cannot be recycled. My time as a resident assistant while an undergraduate showed me that people do not know how to recycle. While pizza might be a college food staple, mountains of greasy boxes, while technically recyclable, are not always accepted (it depends on the municipality). Neither are dirty bottles or paper coffee cups (due to the inner plastic lining). Watch out, glass isn’t recyclable everywhere, either. Bins full of recyclables can and will be tossed out if contaminated by too much trash. Even when someone manages to recycle perfectly, not everything gets recycled. Many of the outdated recycling plants in the United States can’t sort things other than by shape, leaving many goods to be tossed. Additionally, some “recyclables” aren’t actually recycled due to the nature of the plastics themselves being difficult and costly to reform into “new” objects. On top of this, tack on China’s “national sword” policy which, since 2018, has applied rigid contamination rules for accepting recyclable materials. China used to take most of the United States’ recyclables but, because of the policy, no longer does. All this makes recycling look pretty grim.
So, what can we do?
We can encourage students to live more sustainably. Instead of recycling, we can focus on more sustainable practices, such as refilling water bottles and swapping plastic goods for more durable products. Think glass water bottles, sturdy Tupperware, reusable straws, and reusable totes. We can compost and “upcycle” old products for new uses, such as transforming worn-out T-shirts into cleaning rags.
Before the pandemic, a compost bin sat outside my office. I tossed my coffee grounds and banana peels into it. A student intern collected the compostable collection and biked it over to the UGArden, a student-run garden on campus that provides food to the community through sustainable practices.
We need to advocate for existing organizations and programs—such as residential life, clubs on campus, and sororities and fraternities—to get involved in environmental actions as well as kick-start new efforts. As I begin this new chapter in my professional life at UNG, I aim to create a perfectly imperfect “zero waste” club that takes on actions such as making notebooks for the campus community by using disposed paper mushed into pulp and reshaped into new pages. In addition, I want to start a program to recycle water bottles. A club at UGA collected used water bottles, gave them a good wash, and redistributed them to students and faculty, myself included. I’d like to host swaps (clothing, goods, plants, you name it!) and do anything else to reduce our carbon footprint. I hope these initiatives create lifelong habits in students.
Even if you can’t implement these specific examples, you can still incorporate greener practices into your daily life to be a role model to your students. For example, replacing printouts with digital content is an easy and effective way to combat waste. Even something as small as coming to class with your morning coffee in a thermos instead of a disposable cup makes a difference. Eyes are on you.
What’s really cool about a liberal education is that it provides a broad education across many subjects, weaving together subjects for an interdisciplinary approach. In my own experience, though, we sometimes fall short of that goal. I don’t recall much cross over between my major and general education courses. I also remember how shockingly little biology we covered during my forensics minor. On the flip side, I do, excitingly, remember making a presentation on Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for my British literature class. And in graduate school, I saw a big push for bettering science communication by removing jargon and translating data for a broader audience. This type of communication requires successfully pulling from the fields of language arts and marketing.
Generating interdisciplinary connections and demonstrating real-world applications showcase our current fragile environmental standing to students. Of the activities I’ve created my favorite has got to be my pollinator speed-dating lesson. To preface, suites of characteristics such as color, shape, and scent attract certain types of flower pollinators (bees, birds, moths, and bats, to name a few). We call this a pollinator syndrome. For the activity, I break students into two groups: flowers and pollinators. Like in speed dating, the pollinators move around the room, getting a minute or two at each flower to see if they are the best match. I also crafted an asynchronous computer version of this activity. For upper-level plant biology classes, I use the post-lesson activity to connect this idea of pollinator syndromes to economic health. I ask students to pick a pollinator and conduct some general research to find out which important crops (if any) depend on them—for instance, bats are crucial to the growth of blue agave, which is used to make tequila! Students also have to find out whether any of their class of pollinators is endangered and what they think would happen if their chosen pollinator disappeared. The activity is part of a broader lesson on ecological interactions and human dependence on the environment. I’ve also modified the speed dating game for non-major plant biology and nonmajor biology students.
A few years ago, while working as a teaching assistant for a freshman nonmajor plant biology lab, I helped teach students from nearly every major on campus. At the end of the semester, students wrote a one-page essay on how plant biology relates to their majors. The goal of the exercise was to help students broaden their worldviews and see how science connects to everything we do. Plants affect economics (food and wood for housing); politics (the use of genetically modified organisms and agricultural policies); art (pigments, color, inspiration); philosophy (is it more ethical to be a vegetarian/vegan than a meat eater?)—the list goes on. We never know where our students are going to land in their careers. The student you have today could be a policymaker tomorrow.
Connect with K–12
The last thing I want to talk about is connecting with K–12 students. What they learn now prepares them to become college students in the future.
I recently found out from a friend, Leigha McCord, who teaches sixth grade in Athens-Clarke County, that the county started a “Green Schools” program, for which teachers develop lessons about the environment to earn the status of “Green Teacher/School.” “We have gardens and animals (chickens and goats) for students to learn about,” McCord told me. “One of the gardens is run by UGA to feed the homeless.”
UGA also participates in the Connect to Protect program created to install native pollinator gardens—which contain native plants and attract bees and other pollinators—in K–12 schools and public spaces via the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Other programs, including EcoReach at UGA, aim to connect college students with K–12 students to educate them about environmental issues. The Dahlonega Science Council hosts a science festival and other events usually aimed at school-age children. Judging science fairs and helping in competitions such as Science Olympiad are other great ways to get involved.
I’ve shared some ways college and university educators can help progress environmental education. The list is not exhaustive, but the core concepts of science communication, outreach, and engaging students with connections to their world offer guidance for educators seeking to establish environmental efforts or expand on existing ones.
Lead photo: Children plant vegetables and flowers as they participate in UGArden’s Home School Co-Op. (Courtney Johnson/University of Georgia Marketing and Communications)