Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Professors around the Globe

Six professors in different parts of the world answer the same six questions, revealing interesting threads and surprising differences.

By Amy Nelson

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To get a sense of the triumphs and challenges associated with educating tomorrow’s restoration, conservation, and design practitioners, we asked six professors in different parts of the world the same six questions. The professors teach subjects ranging from biology and restoration ecology to engineering and environmental design. Their answers revealed some interesting threads, along with some surprising differences.

Engineers, scientists, planners, designers, etc. need basic core training classes, but problems in the world often exist at junctions between fields. Do you think tomorrow’s practitioners need to be interdisciplinary problem solvers? If so, how do train them in interdisciplinary problem-solving without watering down skill sets? 

Lamb:  There are a number of different “tribes” in our field. There’s a restoration tribe, which talks to itself, goes to its own conferences, and has its own journals. There’s a forestry tribe, who is interested in many of the same things, but goes to different conferences and reads different journals. There’s a rural development tribe, a conservation biology tribe, a carbon sequestration tribe, etc. By and large, none of these tribes talk to one another. The best way of training students to be interdisciplinary problem solvers without watering down core skill sets is to regard the university degree as only the start of the educational program. One way interdisciplinary problems can be tackled is to have people work with members of other “tribes” so they can see the same problems from different perspectives. The best way to do this is not in the formal lecture setting, but working on the ground.

Hood: The notion of interdisciplinary problem solving is not a recent mantra in design; it’s just that we forget. We go through different movements. The civil rights movement brought social scientists into urban planning and design. By the time we had the oil embargo in the 1970s, when we were thinking of alternative energies, many design schools merged disciplines to create a multidisciplinary pedagogical framework. But have we left our silos, even though we’re all under one roof, to talk to one other? I would say we don’t do that very well. Students actually do it better than faculty.  From what I have seen over the last 20 years, students want integrated learning because they see that the problems of the world require integrated thinking. They’re not looking at professions as being singular. They’re seeing themselves as needing a lot of skills. Hopefully, in the future, we will not be so focused on the field [of design] itself but on the ideas, and the ideas will allow for research and teaching at the university to be more multidisciplinary. We’re beginning to do that at [UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design], where we have more conversations with the law school, business school, and engineering school. These relationships are important.

Cisneros: I am convinced that interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary work is very important to solve problems and to find solutions to our own professional issues. That’s why I am convinced that these competencies, knowledge, skills, and values, must be introduced through education in each of its levels; from preschool to college. We have to teach and to be educated with a model where collaborative and multidisciplinary work is the norm. While doing so, we will develop more than solutions. We will develop values that will improve our society.

Unwin: Multidisciplinary approaches are paramount. They are also fundamental to understanding what a successful restoration project is going to involve. Many of [Niagara College’s] graduate certificate programs are practical in nature. Rather than going down a master’s degree pathway of purely academic research into one aspect of restoration, our students, who may have four-year honors degrees in biology or physical geography, come to us to be trained in the practical skill sets required to be a good practitioner. A lot of them come in completely frustrated with the fact that they have a four-year degree but they lack any practical skills whatsoever. They’ve never taken a water sample; they don’t know how to do a prescribed burn; they don’t know how to do taxonomy of some of the native species in a particular life zone. So we teach them those skills, and we train them through a multidisciplinary program. We do a year-long field project where we link the students with local conservation authorities, parks and organizations. They assess a site, looking at soil quality and land-based issues causing ecosystem degradation. Then they devise a restoration strategy, which includes recommendations for implementation, monitoring plans, and adaptive management. At the end of a one-year graduate certificate program, they have a resume that illustrates some knowledge and ability to a potential employer.

Gauthier: Effective problem solving often requires an understanding of systems theory and how individual areas of expertise are affected by and influence other parts of the relevant systems. This is true for the various consultants involved in the design of a new building, farmers and other parties involved in agriculture, and economists and politicians developing policies to improve the economy. We definitely need practitioners with in-depth knowledge of their respective fields, but we can’t responsibly teach any field without identifying how it fits into the larger picture. If we educate students on the processes to identify effective solutions and they are aware of their part’s role in the larger system, we’ll develop better problem solvers.

What trends have you seen over time in the student population, and in what way(s) do these trends give you concern…or hope? 

Lamb: Students always give me hope. That has been constant throughout my career. Over time, students have become more quantitative in their studies and reporting, which is a good thing. They have also become more international in their perspective. Rather than just looking at Australian problems, they have become more aware of the wider world, and they’re looking at issues on a global perspective.

Hood: At the undergraduate level, I’m beginning to see more students actually creating their own programs. They say, “This is what I want to do in the world, and if there is no program that fits, I’m going to make my own.” At Berkeley, we have interdisciplinary programs where students can take classes in different schools and write their thesis. Smart students are not waiting around for the institution to chart the course. Trends that cause concern? What I have seen from talking to students is that no one has failed at anything. So it’s harder for them to take risks, to try something out, fail at it, and have it lead to something else.

Gauthier: In approximately 15 years of teaching college students, I have noticed a rapidly increasing percent of students taking courses on sustainability with the hopes of finding a good job or because they recognize the improved value proposition of sustainable development. The makeup of today’s classes is significantly different than in the past, when the only students taking a sustainability elective were passionate environmentalists looking to get into conservation and activism. While occasionally I might reminisce about the old days when students in my classes were there for seemingly altruistic reasons, it gives me a lot of hope to see such important issues becoming incorporated into the mainstream. It is great to see our future business men and women, educators, politicians and others studying sustainability because they see the link to their chosen professions.

Unwin: A consistent trend in our restoration post-graduate program, which has been around for about 15 years, is that it seems to attract a lot more females than males. We have had at least a two-to-one ratio. Another trend has been a more socially conscious student. The complacency I saw in the first eight years of teaching has been replaced by more activism in nature. People are fed up with decisions that are being made that will affect their generation, and they’re quite willing to step up to the plate and do something about it.

Cisneros: In engineering competition exists at the professional level and between students.  This could be a result of the psychological and educational formation of engineers. On the other hand, new generations of highly educated college students are ever more thoughtful, critical, and active.

Elliott:  Students in Thailand seem to have shorter attention spans than [when I started work here in 1986] and are more interested in “getting grades” than in their chosen subject areas. The major shift was with the introduction of “student centered learning” in schools 15 years ago, whereby pupils were encouraged to ‘discover things for themselves’ instead of receiving skills, wisdom, knowledge etc. from the teachers. Whilst this may work for some subjects, it does not work for languages. Hence my impression is that the standard of English (essential as the international language of science) among students starting university has markedly dropped in recent years. It means that research students are finding it more and more difficult to get papers accepted by international peer reviewed journals and much of the information they generate remains as obscure poster presentations at conferences.

How do you balance teaching “how to think” (scientific principles/methods/analytical inquiry) with teaching about tools (e.g., GIS, modeling) that help students evaluate data and reach conclusions?

Lamb: After you have the basics, you pose questions rather than describe what is known. Pose a particular, real problem and get students to explore. That is often best done as a group. We used to have week-long field trips – one to a rainforest area south of Brisbane, and one to a semi-arid area far west of Brisbane. We’d give students a particular project to work on over a week. We’d say, “To tackle this, you need to articulate the question you are going to ask and how you’re going to get a yes, no, or quantitative answer.” We’d also have them to write up reports. The experience of having to pose and answer a question (and sometimes realize you haven’t posed the question very well and have to rephrase it), and then write a report about it in a short period of time is a good way of achieving that balance. There’s only so much you can do in a lecture room. You’ve got to get out and apply things.

Gauthier: In all of my general sustainability courses, I try to emphasize processes over specific solutions. Rather than do students the disservice of suggesting one-size-fits-all solutions to our rapidly changing world, I stress systematic problem solving methods that, if applied correctly, will naturally incorporate the most appropriate tools and technologies for a given situation. Many of these classes include a review of tools commonly used to support the problem solving processes and incorporate their outputs, but rarely do I go in-depth into any one tool. For tools I find to be the most valuable or those I feel especially qualified to teach, I will dedicate entire courses to their practical application. When teaching “energy auditing of existing buildings” or “preparing an institutional climate action plan” for example, I emphasize that these specific tools are part of larger efforts of institutional sustainability.

Cisneros: In the past, students were more passive in their learning. They had more knowledge than rationale. They could memorize a large amount of knowledge related with their profession. However, focused changes in curriculum in Mexico have generated more competent students. The learning process has become a more thoughtful process which nurtures problem solving through the use of modeling tools that allow them to evaluate different scenarios and propose solutions.

Unwin: We encourage students to use tools, but apply them to projects and real-life scenarios. When we walk them through real-life scenarios, when they can compare what their approach would have been with real life strategies, they can self reflect, and incorporate what they learn into problem solving. We have 15 acres of wetland that we’re restoring right on campus. Rather than talk about a wetland restoration project and the variables that need to be considered, we go out and look at ours. Then I say, “You guys are going to come up with the next phase of restoration plans for this site.” With undergrads, you often have to illustrate to them that they already have the knowledge to solve a problem. A bunch of students once complained to me about a hydrology course taught by a colleague. They weren’t given a formula to solve a problem in an exam scenario. It was a groundwater monitoring well, and they had to determine groundwater flow using a formula and they had to determine the volume of water in the cylinder itself. They said, “We weren’t given that formula. [The professor] didn’t even talk about how to determine the volume of a cylinder!” I said, “Guys, how do you determine the surface of a circle?” They said, “Pi r squared.” I asked, “How do you determine volume?” They said, “Surface area times depth.” I looked at them, and they had one of those “a-ha” moments.

Hood: It’s hard. With technological changes, the tools have become more accessible, but sometimes the tools get in the way. It’s easier to get information, but sometimes you can have too much information, and this does not allow you to be rigorous. I am constantly talking about how to make sound decisions with the information you have. With so much information, there’s often an assumption that all it is all good and correct.

Elliott: “How to think” must be taught through practical exercises as close as possible to real life situations. Set up real life situations where students have to take on the role of characters with different points of view (usually not their own). For example, I run a lab which re-creates a workshop that actually happened to establish an eco-tourist lodge in Doi Inthanon National Park. Each student plays a randomly assigned person who actually attended the workshop: the Park Chief, the village chief, the women’s group leader, the conservation NGO leader, etc. They go on a field trip to gather facts and then meet as a committee. They must reach a compromise agreement arguing from the point of view of their characters. Then we see if their conclusion matches that of the real committee. In another exercise they become the leader of an NGO applying for funds to set up their own project. They must present their proposal to the “WWF Committee,” which is the rest of the class, and we go through the process of how conservation funders allocate funds. It teaches leadership, concise proposal writing, convincing speaking, and how funders work.

How important do you consider collaboration among academia and practitioners? How much of this type of collaboration do you see/experience?

Gauthier: I believe collaboration between academia and practitioners to be extremely important. Students realize very quickly when an instructor’s teachings are purely theoretical without the benefit of real-world application. When students are hoping to someday apply their learning out in the job market, they’re looking for practical examples of how the lessons of the classroom relate to the real world.

Hood: In practice, collaboration is key. I try to instill in my students the need to be very clear about why and how they do what they do. So when they’re working with others, it’s not about power or a hierarchical relationship. It’s about having something to offer. Some of the best collaborations I’ve been involved in have been those where everyone is comfortable with their skill set, so there is no need to flex. We try to offer a very diverse set of experiences. Our studios range from entry level, which are about learning the craft, to advanced, which are about applying the craft. In advanced studios, students actually engage with clients (along with faculty and practitioners). At Berkeley, a lot of the projects are public realm projects, so students are engaged with some city or locale. We also try to have practitioners teach some courses.

Lamb: From an academic’s point of view, this type of collaboration helps you keep your feet on the ground. You don’t get so diverted away with the fascinating, little questions that only you and a half dozen other people are interested in. A few years ago, there was a government initiative called Cooperative Research Centres. The objective was to bring together, academics, researchers, and practitioners in a way that would further the economy. A number of the centres had to do with environmental issues, and I was involved in one related to rainforest management. There is a patch of rainforest that runs along the east coast, and it has a high proportion of our national biodiversity. Much of it was cleared in the late 19th century for agriculture. Some of the land has been badly damaged, so there is a lot of interest in reforesting. We were forming partnerships with government agencies and private landholders and looking at ways to reforest. It was good because we could see things from the practitioner’s view point and we had to rearrange our priorities as to what was the most important research question.

Elliott: Critical. There’s no point in doing science if it remains locked up in journals no one can afford written in a language hardly anyone can read fluently (English). Our unit sees research and outreach as equally important, and we pass on skills and knowledge to a wide range of stakeholders, from government officers (often from abroad) to villagers and school kids. It’s actually more fun to pass on research results than to generate them. We also publish all our books in a range of local languages: Thai English, Lao Khmer, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

Unwin: I don’t think there is enough collaboration between academics and practitioners. Maybe [the Ecosystem Restoration program at Niagara College] is an illustration of where that crossover could occur. Most of our courses are taught by practitioners, rather than university academics. There is a huge importance to research in areas practitioners cannot understand or don’t have the time to spend on. There has to be a feedback loop between academics and practitioners. I don’t think there is enough communication between those two worlds in terms of where practitioners may have some on the ground struggles. Adaptive management principles apply, and practitioners can keep trying different strategies, but at the end of the day, if they aren’t able to solve a particular problem, maybe pure, academic science can step in and say, “Let’s look at this at a different level and feed back to you information you require to make on the ground restoration more successful.”

Cisneros: In the engineering field in Mexico and at Universidad Autonoma de San Luis Potosi, there is a tendency to reach out to the industry and professionals. This program is known as Professional Residencies (Residencia Profesionales) or “Estancia.”  These are similar to internships, where the student is introduced into a company with the purpose of gaining experience. This also allows the company to meet students and consider them for future possible employment. There are also internships where students are enrolled in research institutes or government agencies for the same purpose.

Our summer interns (both undergraduate and graduate) said that the greatest gap they saw between academia and the world of practitioners is the ”red tape” involved in real-world project work. Do you think this is something that should be included in college and graduate education?

Lamb: My concern about having courses on that topic is that it would be too site-specific. It also sounds a bit mechanical to me. The rules that apply in 2013 may not apply in 2015. I’m sensitive to the dilemma, but I wonder whether that’s the sort of thing that should be post-graduate. I think that’s part of on-the-job training.

Elliott: There are some things that cannot be taught; you just have to experience them and deal with the situations that arise.

Gauthier: Bridging the gap between theoretical and practical is a critical component of effectively teaching about sustainability. For some topics, this definitely includes a regulatory component. For others it might include how to arrange financing or how to incorporate a quality management process so that actual outcomes match expected outcomes. When I teach about green building design and construction, the first topics we review include the nuances of different construction delivery methods, what is included in the various contract documents created during a project, and how to leverage these systems to deliver a sustainable project. If regulatory red tape is a common barrier to successful outcomes in a given field, than it should absolutely be covered in college and graduate courses.

Unwin: I would agree with your interns. You step into a project, and you don’t understand that you’re going to spend half your time filling out funding applications to ensure you have money to do the work. Or that you are going to have to do year-end reporting to show you are meeting the requirements of the funding agency. That’s an important skill set, but how do you cover it in an undergraduate degree program? I’m not sure any universities in Canada would take their curricula and tailor them to those skill sets. A restoration practitioner who wants to be successful has to know how to write a good proposal.

As part of our graduate certificate program, we teach communication skills because we know that is paramount to a project succeeding. But how to craft a budget? How to look at time estimation? How to obtain quotes from landscape construction companies? Project management fundamentals are critically important to a practitioner, but I don’t know of many universities that teach project management skills. [Regarding regulations] there are some general things a student needs to be aware of, whether it’s a water taking permit, basic environmental impact assessments, etc. I don’t see universities necessarily fulfilling that requirement. That’s why students can be frustrated and feel behind when they step into an employment opportunity. Employers are actually saying to us, “We’d rather students be able to hit the ground running a bit more so we don’t have to invest so much time just bringing them up to speed on things like laws and regulations.” The financial reality today is that if an employer has to choose between a candidate who is ready and one who needs to be trained, it’s a no brainer.

Hood: During the 1980s, the ending of public financing created a void. You couldn’t do public projects anymore because the government wasn’t paying for them. In the early 90s, I traveled to India, and everyone was talking about NGOs. I was like, “What’s an NGO?” Ten years later, I’m working with NGOs on housing in Oakland. There is a changing infrastructure to how we get things done, and academia is slow to adapt. One also needs to be aware of regulatory issues and how one goes about things like permitting. We try to have students be aware of that in the projects they work on. At CED, we have a professional practice class–taught by someone active in the practice–which students are required to take so they understand things like contracts.

Cisneros : In Mexico and in my University, there are regular proposals aided by the CONACYT (Consejo de Ciencia y Tecnologia) to help establish the relationship between industry and academia.  The goal is to solve the company’s problems and allow professors, students and post-graduate students to collaborate on a solution. These costs are shared by the company and the CONACYT. This is not part of the curriculum, however, dedicated researchers know that they have access to this type of funding and also the opportunity to obtain patents, write articles, etc.

Can you tell us about a recent student research project that really impressed you and gives you hope for the future?

Lamb: A young woman named Susan Doust did a really interesting study on direct seeding [as opposed to growing seedlings] to restore rainforest species. She looked at the germination requirements, for a whole range of different species at different altitudes. Her site ranged from sea level to 1000 meters. She ended up with a series of prescriptions, and her study was published in Forest Ecology and Management.

Hood: All of my students give me hope for the future. I’ll just mention one. A student was dealing with the notion of a cataclysmic landscape outside a large town in Chile. The area had been subject to a lot of earthquakes, yet people still lived there. It was a beautiful study about how people can adapt over time to a changing landscape. A lot of the thesis projects coming out of our design program have to do with environmental degradation of place. I find the fact that students are looking to that–rather than saying, “I want to make this thing”–very encouraging.

Elliott: [One student studied the use of] fig trees to break up compacted substrates and rocks so that forest restoration can be done on opencast mines. It [brought together ideas that already existed] in a new combination to solve a huge of problem of getting trees to grow in rock. If we can do that, then we can restore forest anywhere.

Unwin: What we’ve done on our campus with 15 acres of wetlands has been a success story. It was an old sewage lagoon that treated wastewater from an office building before the municipal sewers were extended out here. When we built this new campus, we approached the regional government about purchasing it. We knew we could use it as an outdoor lab. Over the last 15 years, we have been using it to study all kinds of things, like wetland restoration, control of invasive species like phragmites, and snapping turtle reintroduction. In fact, we’ve had such good success with the snapping turtle population that the Toronto Zoo has been partnering with us and coming down and learning from us.

Gauthier: As somebody who recently switched from working with students at the Harvard Extension School to those at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, it makes me happy to see how quickly the KIST students have adopted sustainable design practices. Whereas in the Boston area owners are demanding green buildings and knowledge of sustainable design is necessary to meet client demands, there is no such demand in Rwanda and the students I’m working with are learning about sustainability because they see it as critical to being a good architect. Without exception, the fifth year bachelor students in last year’s sustainable design course voluntarily incorporated sustainability into the final studio projects required for graduation. It is my hope that we come to a point where all designers incorporate sustainability into their projects–not because clients request it, but because that is the only way to deliver a good project. It seems that the first class of architecture graduates in Rwanda are headed in that direction.

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