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When University of Illinois professor Bill Sullivan first offered a course called Environmental Sustainability in Fall of 2009, only 11 students were enrolled, and they came from just two departments.
The following year, 27 students signed up, representing a somewhat wider range of majors.
This fall, Environmental Sustainability was supposed to be opened to a maximum of 50 students, but, as Sullivan told me, somebody working at registration forgot to shut the gate. As a result, he’s teaching a group of 98 undergraduates from all across campus.
What is it that students taking Environmental Sustainability are so eager to learn? The first two-thirds of the course focus on some of the harsh realities of the world they stand to inherit: global warming, ecosystem and biodiversity loss, the threat of pandemics, pockets of persistent and severe poverty, the depletion of resources essential to human well-being.
Sullivan wants students to develop greater capacities for thinking critically about these issues, but he emphasizes that in order to do so, they must first gain a clear understanding of the facts.
The latter part of the semester is devoted to the study of how human creativity and innovation can enable people to create a more sustainable world.
Ultimately, Sullivan hopes that what his students learn in Environmental Sustainability will shape how they approach the work they do beyond school, whether they go on to design energy-efficient buildings, teach English, practice medicine or create art.
I tell this short story about the interest in and aims of Bill Sullivan’s Environmental Sustainability class for two reasons. First, to illustrate just one of the ways undergraduate education is thriving at the U of I. Second, to call attention to how much good can be accomplished with a little bit of extra support at the right time.
Sullivan received a grant to help develop his Environmental Sustainability course from the Environmental Change Institute, or ECI, which is the campus unit where I’ve held an appointment for the past couple of years.
ECI was created in 2008, thanks to a generous gift from the Alvin H. Baum Family fund and matching funds from three U of I colleges: Business, Law, and Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Its mission is to advance understanding of global environmental change and offer solutions that enable society to avoid, mitigate or adapt to its effects through the support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach initiatives.
On Wednesday, December 7, ECI will host its third annual symposium, where members of the campus community and the general public are invited to learn more about the wide range of efforts it supports.
Speakers at the symposium will include Bill Sullivan, as well as others who have developed courses with help from ECI. In addition, there will be presentations on the wide range of other activities ECI has fostered.
For example, plant biologist and ECI fellow Andrew Leakey will describe his ongoing quest to identify the knowledge needed to adapt tropical rice to tolerate the range of warming predicted in the 21st century. And Karen Decker of ECI will give an overview of the Illinois Energy Dashboard project. This project, which involves collaboration between ECI, the Student Sustainability Committee and U of I Facilities & Services, will provide usable information about energy consumption to students and staff of chosen University buildings.
The Environmental Change Institute’s annual symposium will be held from 9:00 a.m. to noon at the Beckman Institute on the U of I campus. Further details follow:
9:00 am Coffee and Refreshments
9:15 am Welcome: Wesley Jarrell, Interim Director, ECI
Robert Easter: Interim Associate Chancellor
9:25 am Mr. Joel Friedman: Alvin H. Baum Family Fund
9:35 am Robert Hauser: Dean, College of ACES
Pradeep Khanna: Associate Chancellor
9:45 am ECI-Supported Courses
Bill Sullivan: Landscapes, Sustainability & Human Health
Bruce Litchfield & Katherine Halm: Grab-a-Bike @ Illinois
Scott Willenbrock: Science and Sustainability
Jesse Ribot & Poonam Jusrut: Democracy and Environment
Brian Deal: Sustainability and the Built Environment
10:15 am ECI-Partnerships
Emily Cross: Reflections from COP 16
Michelle Wander: Change and the Heartland
Karen Decker: Curriculum for Change and the Heartland
Willie Dong & Nick Glumac: Effects of Soil Water and Bulk Density on Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy of Soil Organic Carbon
Jonathan Tomkin: Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation
Karen Decker: Energy Dashboard
11:00 am ECI Fellows
Catherine Blake: Text Mining Environmental Change Literature
Andrew Leakey: Basic Research to Enable Adaptations of Rice Production to
11:20 am ECI Funded Research Reports
Andrew Leakey: Environmental Change-induced Alterations in Crop Rooting
Andrea Martens: The Impact of Gasoline Prices on Internet Purchases
Jennifer Fraterrigo: Terrestrial Carbon Loss to Aquatic Ecosystems
Courtney Flint: Agricultural Landscapes and Decision Making in the Context of Climate and Policy Change
11:50 am Closing Remarks: Wesley Jarrell
Join in for conversation and refreshments