Enhancing Environmental Literacy and Global Learning among Honors Students

Article excerpt

In 2005, the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) released a summary of a decade's worth of research into environmental literacy among Americans, collected in collaboration with Roper Reports. The report included some disturbing statistics: 45 million Americans think the ocean is a fresh-water source, for example, and only 12% of those surveyed were able to pass a basic quiz on energy awareness. As the report's author laments, "Our years of data from Roper surveys show a persistent pattern of environmental ignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society" (Coyle v). Like most Americans, honors students are often only superficially aware of environmental concerns. Those who have developed some degree of environmental awareness may be praised or derided for "thinking outside the box," but as Amory Lovins, an energy analyst, argues, "There is no box" (qtd. in Brown xi). We are at a tipping point in our human interactions with nature, a crisis that demands we be more attentive than ever to interconnections and systems-thinking and move beyond the compartmentalization of knowledge that is characteristic of many university curricula.

For this reason, among others, our recent favorable accreditation review at Kennesaw State University was based in part on our success in promoting global learning and appreciation for diversity across campus. While the institution passed that review with no difficulty, the assessment of programs across campus continues to focus on whether global learning and diversity are being adequately addressed. As an honors director who is also co-directing the new Interdisciplinary Studies Program on our campus, chairing the university-wide Environmental Concerns Committee, and sitting on the President's Climate Commitment Board, I feel an especially urgent need to combine global learning with environmental learning, so two years ago I set out to design a course that would encourage honors students to analyze environmental issues more closely through the lens of world religions and cultures.

GOALS AND COURSE DEVELOPMENT

The challenge of developing a semester-length course on such a broad topic was intensified by the relative cultural homogeneity of KSU students. My institution is located in the northwest quadrant of the metro Atlanta area, and its 21,000 students come primarily from northwest Georgia and southern Tennessee. Many also come from conservative religious backgrounds, and these students typically consider responding to environmental concerns less important than advancing their positions on specific social issues and maintaining a strong sense of exclusivity. Even those who brand themselves as more broad-minded nurse misconceptions about other religions.

As I considered all these factors, I decided to design a course curriculum that would meet our accreditation criteria and also raise the level of environmental literacy among our honors students. Fortunately, I received an internal grant to design the course and in the summer of 2007 spent six weeks in Oxford, England reading everything from scientific literature on global warming to books and articles on environmental philosophy. I emerged with a broader and more informed perspective on the complexities of ameliorating environmental ills. As scholars from Lester Brown, President of the Earth Institute, to the Dalai Lama have observed, aggressive advances in technology must also be accompanied by changes in cultural awareness and practical efforts to live more sustainably. These became the touchstones of my honors seminar, "Spirit and Nature: Religion and Environmental Values," taught as Honors 2290, a lower-level "special topics" course (a general designation for a wide variety of innovative courses offered in the program) for all levels of honors students, from those in our joint-enrollment honors program to college seniors. Of the thirteen students who enrolled, the oldest student in my class was forty-one, the youngest seventeen. …