Diversity and Democracy

Community Environmental Scholars: Working "Together, for the Planet"

Years ago, we worked with a colleague who wanted to engage community groups in his biogeochemical research. His expertise lay in detecting trace amounts of metals in soils, particularly lead, cadmium, and arsenic, and he hoped to involve a community group in his effort to sample soils at urban playgrounds that he suspected were contaminated with these metals. Together, we met with the director of the local urban environmental justice organization, who listened politely and then said he wasn’t interested. His group was already working on several successful projects to clean up the neighborhood, highlight inequalities in official responses to environmental problems, and publicize these efforts. He asked if we would like to participate in these projects, suggesting they would offer valuable experiences for our undergraduates. We accepted his offer, sending student interns to produce a short movie documenting the group’s “environmental justice tour.” As promised, the students were transformed by the experience.

This story illustrates an important truth about civic engagement and higher education: we faculty and our students can learn much from the community groups we hope to “help.” These groups often need basic human and monetary resources and access to avenues of political power, but they seldom need the kinds of technical resources or research that is the province of most academic environmental programs. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison), we are keeping this lesson in mind as we prepare students to “give back” to their communities, both during their student years and as future professionals.

Program Components

UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (named for former Wisconsin governor and environmentalist Gaylord Nelson) bases its work on the premise that complex environmental issues can best be understood through the combined diverse perspectives of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The tagline “Together. For the planet” unites faculty members from many disciplines in offering undergraduate courses that count toward a thirty-credit major or a fifteen-credit certificate in environmental studies. In keeping with our philosophy of intellectual diversity, the major requires a second major of the student’s choice. In the 2011–12 academic year, ninety students graduated as majors and an additional 125 students earned a certificate.

Three years ago, the Nelson Institute launched the Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP) for undergraduates. This program is designed for students who want to link their passion for the environment with a commitment to community. It offers structured community-based service-learning projects, professional development training, and a supportive classroom setting for connecting the dots.

With support from the National Science Foundation and others, the program also provides need-based scholarships to a cohort of students pursuing environmental studies degrees and certificates. In contrast to many university scholarships, the awards go to juniors and seniors. These students are generally more ready than their younger counterparts to undertake service projects in the wider community, and they benefit from the opportunity to build useful skills immediately prior to entering the workforce or graduate school.

New and returning CESP students enroll together in a one-credit seminar for each of their three semesters with the program. The program, which typically enrolls about thirty students, introduces students to local environmental and community organizations through

  • presentations by professionals and researchers who work in and for the community;
  • service-learning projects with local organizations (see sidebar);
  • structured exercises to discuss and reflect on service-learning projects;
  • professional development activities like résumé and internship workshops, “elevator interview” exercises, and intensive academic and career advising.

CESP will begin its fourth year in fall 2012. So far, students in the program have provided over 4,500 hours of service to partner organizations through the one-credit seminar, service internships, and capstone courses. CESP has also increased diversity in the Nelson Institute student body, with the percentage of students from racial and ethnic minority groups growing from 3.5 percent in 2006 to 8.2 percent in 2011.

Skills for Lifelong Engagement

In part because of our university’s historical connection to John Muir (class of 1863) and Aldo Leopold (former faculty member), UW–Madison has long taken an ecologically-based approach to teaching and learning about the environment. More recently, faculty and students have expanded this approach by developing research, academic, and service programs focused on topics like energy policy and bioenergy, urban agriculture, food policy, and environmental justice. All of these programs require students to navigate the intersections between community and environment.

Community Environmental Scholars Program: Example Projects

CESP students' small-group projects have included

  • recruiting student volunteers for an invasive species control initiative for recreational boaters;
  • creating and delivering environmentally themed educational modules for a local Latino Youth Summit;
  • working with a local environmental magnet school to develop a composting program;
  • delivering presentations on environmental justice to an organization that provides ecology-themed outreach to urban youth;
  • developing a fundraising website for a local wildlife rescue shelter.

—Robert B. Beattie and 
Catherine H. Middlecamp


How can we help students learn to be respectfully engaged citizens? We have found that students need to practice all four modes of literacy (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) to succeed in community engagement and in their later careers. Across the curriculum, students have multiple opportunities to practice reading and writing, but opportunities to hone the skills of speaking and listening are less common. We have endeavored to develop activities that allow students to practice both of these critical skills.

Over the past year, we have been fortunate to have world-famous “listener” John Francis in residency as a visiting associate professor. Francis took a seventeen-year vow of silence and a twenty-two-year hiatus from traveling in motorized vehicles after being shocked and dismayed by a 1971 oil spill near his home in California. During this time, he walked throughout North and South America on a personal pilgrimage to learn about his world and share his silent environmental advocacy. In a presentation to our first CESP cohort, Francis explained that his silence allowed him to genuinely listen to and learn from the people he met on his journey. As he put it in a later campus presentation, “Our first chance to treat the environment well [...] is in the relationship with ourselves and each other. And so [...] it’s really about how we treat each other when we meet each other” (2012).

Francis’s insight about the importance of listening guides many of our in-class exercises. Using case studies, students discuss and engage environmental controversies from the perspective of all communities involved, developing a heightened sensitivity to the diverse points of view they will encounter when working with community groups. Students also learn to communicate with diverse audiences through our annual “elevator speech” training exercise, where they spend three minutes telling their stories and engaging with environmental professionals, entrepreneurs, and community group leaders whom we have invited to visit the class. Our guests give feedback and advice to students, who later reflect on the exercise and what it taught them about communication.

Through these and other strategies, CESP teaches students to be effective participants in conflicts about environmental issues, which are often rooted in differing values. To engage in these conflicts, students need knowledge and sensitivity, a strong sense of themselves and an openness to the values and ideas of others. CESP gives students some of the tools they need to be good environmental citizens who treat the earth well by treating other humans well. We can’t think of a better way of working “Together. For the planet.”

To learn more about CESP, visit http://nelson.wisc.edu/undergraduate/cesp/index.php.


Francis, John. 2012. “John Francis, Ragged Edge of Silence.” Filmed January 26. YouTube video, 1:31:20. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE_gjWM1U0A.

Robert B. Beattie is the academic coordinator of the Community Environmental Scholars Program, and Catherine H. Middlecamp is an associate professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


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