Faculty Reflections on Active Learning and Global Environmental Change

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida


The 2017 Network Winter workshop on migration and climate change allowed faculty to become students again. We learned a great deal, but more importantly we developed strategies to bring the material back to our respective universities. Active learning moves beyond traditional learning in that it creates opportunities for students to engage in the learning process and requires students to think about what they are doing. This can often be accomplished with three methods: collaborative, co-operative, and problem-based learning (Prince, 2004). Students are no longer receptacles to be filled with knowledge; they need to engage and construct the knowledge (Freire, 1970). Our research group believes that real-world relevance and experience can ignite the learner’s desire to explore and investigate; it can help them develop confidence and build pathways to literacy; and it can encourage flexibility in cognition (Williams, 2011). Through simulations and international study opportunities we deliver many realistic problems, cases, and tasks that students may encounter in the real world and eventually in their professional lives (Silber, 2010; Merrill, 2002; van Merrinboer, 2002).

Xavier University: Simulation and Application in International Relations

It has been argued that active learning is significant to the intellectual development of today’s students.  To ensure active learning occurs, faculty must embrace pedagogical approaches that can allow learners to connect. Gone are the days when lectures and analog assignments inform the pattern of classroom exercises. Instructors vary their pedagogies to ensure that students are stakeholders in learning and can assume agency for their intellectual growth. At Xavier University, faculty explore innovative techniques to assist students in accessing and participating in the global marketplace of ideas, where complex themes demand understanding and creative solutions. Global climate change is one such theme. To reduce its complexity, students have opportunities for unique research as well as for performing their understanding of the findings. International Relations and Quantitative Analysis have been especially effective in this regard. These courses engage students through active learning while deepening their understanding of global climate change, the global challenges it creates, and the solutions those challenges may require.

How do students living in an individualistic culture manage study of global issues? Simulation, it has been argued, is an asset in the classroom. Scholars suggest that simulation exercises motivate students to learn new facts by exposing them to real-world experiences through indirect observation. It introduces fun into an otherwise serious learning curriculum, which makes learning easier and more practical (Oberle, 2004). In addition, it imparts content skills (Clapper, 2010) and develops self-confidence and identity among learners. A positive way to encourage students in critical thinking, according to Shapiro and Leopold (2012), is role-play, which, in our experience, engages students in active learning exercises that help them to develop empathy, tolerance, and self-efficacy as they simulate roles of global leadership and diplomacy while exploring issues like climate change.

In the International Relations course, students simulate a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) forum on climate change. This allows them to share their understanding of climate change, the role of humans in accelerating said change, and possible solutions for decelerating climate change. Assuming the role of citizens of distant countries who are experiencing/recognizing the effects of climate change intellectually stimulates students and inspires in them a passion for problem solving. Each student researches the knowledge of climate change in their adopted country, gathers data on evidence of climate change, identifies the extent to which human behavior contributes to climate change, and offers solutions at a mock UNEP forum where they share information with peers, faculty, and other campus community members. By the end of the semester, students are amazed at the new knowledge they have gained and connect it with domestic issues and actions being taken by the EPA that might be shared with overseas collaborators. Representing the environmental plight of foreign others is a great source of empowerment for students in the international relations class. When sharing this knowledge in other classrooms and with other groups on campus, students realize the transformative power of critical thinking and of the expertise they gained.

Active learning is a catalyst for transformational thinking. Students in the international relations class are also required to take a course in political science research methods and quantitative analysis. They were able to take what they had learned in International Relations and seamlessly apply it to political science while enhancing their research skills. They further study climate change through the sub-topics of environmental justice, environmental concern, and threat perception. In Political Science Research Methods and Quantitative Analysis, students develop a survey instrument to poll respondents on their environmental knowledge and how much they attribute climate change to the role of human behavior. One semester, from a sample of 771, students learned via empirical analysis that 86% of the public believe that climate change is real and 68% attribute the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as an inhibitor to a healthy climate. The survey and analysis further indicated an association between human behavior and climate degradation.

The active learning strategies (simulation, polling, data collection, and analysis) have awakened the consciousness of students at Xavier University with respect to global climate change. They now have the desire to assume global citizenship and collaborate with the rest of humanity in the pursuit of a more just and humane global society, the mission of their alma mater.

Stetson University: Global Climate Summit in Sociology

A global climate change simulation exercise was used at Stetson University in three sections of Population, Society, and Environment (SOCI 215R). This class meets a general education requirement in the area of environmental responsibility. Approximately 27 students enroll in each section of this course, including sociology majors and minors, environmental science and studies (ENSS) majors and minors, and a variety of other students from across the university. The course asks students to make use of the sociological imagination by connecting their individual experience to larger social forces. As part of the class, students calculate their ecological footprint and reflect on the changes they might make to lower their footprint. The class requires students to articulate the most important demographic and environmental issues facing a region and to connect environmental problems to demographic processes. They are asked to propose solutions and to understand the difficulties they will encounter as they implement their ideas. In 2016, this class involved an optional spring break seminar in China. In subsequent years, the simulation exercise was incorporated, so that students who were not able study abroad might also participate in active learning.

Throughout the semester, students work with two classmates in groups representing nine regions of the world: North America and the Caribbean; Southern and Central America; Northern and Western Europe; Southern and Eastern Europe; East, Southeast, and Central Asia; West and South Asia; Northern and Western Africa; Southern and Eastern Africa; and Australia and Oceana. For each chapter of the text, students investigate demographic and environmental trends in their region. In most chapters, students use the data sheet published annually by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) to compare the countries within their region. For instance, students compare carbon dioxide emissions in different countries of their region. As a class, we then compare regions to one another.

Having perspective on their region prepares students for a culminating exercise that spans multiple class periods during the week of Earth Day. The Global Climate Summit is a simulation exercise that requires students to present the environmental challenges facing their region to other “delegates” from different regions. Delegates then work together to propose solutions and assess their feasibility. Additional variables—such as a man-made disaster—are introduced during the exercise to add complexity.

Similar to the simulation exercise at Xavier University, students both learn practical skills, such as informational literacy and teamwork, and broaden their world perspective. Preparing their opening remarks and reaction statements requires students to synthesize information from numerous sources, including the PRB and World Bank. Students also must think more broadly about which other regions face similar concerns and strategize mutually beneficial policies as they deepen their critical thinking skills (Shapiro & Leopold, 2012).

In a follow-up to the exercise, students assess the contributions of their teammates as well as the most important lessons they learned. One senior stated, “I learned how to discuss a complex issue in simple terms in order to facilitate dialogue.” Another student also had a very practical observation: “Coming up with agreement and solutions is exhausting and time consuming.” Students came away with a new appreciation for negotiation and collaboration. A student-athlete in the class noted, “To have a successful project we all have to help.”

Global citizenship is one of Stetson’s values. A student who is now working in an international environment reflected, “I learned more about the world’s interconnectedness, and how important it is for inter- and intra-regional dialogue.” Another student reflected empathetically, “It was jarring to see such differences in technological and infrastructural advances in countries that were so close to each other in geographical location.” Indeed, active learning helped students to recognize how countries at different levels of development experience climate change differently, and encouraged them to make changes in their own behavior to limit climate change.

Stockton University: Creating New Global Experiences

The opportunities that came to Stockton University from Network Winter 2017 all started during lunch. It was here that faculty from Stockton University and the American College of Greece – Deree (ACG), the host of the workshop, discussed their environmental programs and the opportunities for collaborative global active learning in STEM. There was mutual interest in finding field-based education opportunities for environmental studies students. When we take students into the field, they come alive, increase their environmental awareness, balance the realities of different stakeholders, and become deep learners committed to the local environment and its citizens (Moscovici & Witt, 2018).

With motivated faculty, good partnerships, and supportive administration, Stockton and ACG quickly formed a Memorandum of Understanding. Now the two programs could officially work in partnership. Initial collaboration included an electronic learning opportunity for students in both countries. The next idea is to develop international experiences for students from both universities.

In the spring of 2018, a group of students in the USA and another group in Greece came together electronically to discuss and propose solutions to environmental problems. Unlike a normal classroom, the students first needed to overcome the technological, language, cultural and geographical barriers that existed. The assignment required them to find a solution to communication issues. They had to choose their method, be it Skype, email, Facetime, Whatsapp, Facebook, text, Zoom, or a combination of platforms. Next, they had to overcome time zones and language barriers. Most chose to plan synchronous meeting times, and all chose to write in English with the help of an online translator. Then, each group was asked to develop their own icebreaker. By formulating a series of 10 questions that they would each answer, they could get to know each other and their interests.

For the main assignment, both groups were asked to choose from a list of environmental problems common in both nations related to: hunting/fishing, forestry, ecotourism, viticulture/oenology, water supplies, global events (e.g., the World Cup, Olympics), recycling/waste management, and beaches/coastal zones. Students then cooperatively made a research poster to include background, an international comparison between the USA & Greece, and recommendations/solutions. They used peer-reviewed research and developed creative techniques to address these complex problems.

Each group had to develop a poster through collaborative, co-operative, and problem-based learning. In post-project interviews, students provided positive feedback, most often citing the benefit of receiving a global experience without leaving their own region. And they all wanted more. The next step is to take them out of the state of New Jersey. We will bring the students abroad and create new applied learning opportunities in the course. The first group will travel in May 2019; students from the United States will visit Greece for nine days. There, students will study waste and coastal impacts by kayaking out to a Greek island for a beach cleanup. They will engage with protected lands, wetland mitigation, and tourism development in the littoral zone of the Attica Peninsula. We will also have an opportunity to study transportation, post Olympics, as we travel by metro, light rail, and city bus every day, engaging with local citizens, food, religion, history, philosophy, art, and agriculture. This educational field study course can teach through discovery, integration, and application and further the educational experience by creating connections among locals, students, and professionals (Moscovici, 2013). This course will be a biennial offering with hopes that Greek students can come to Stockton University in alternate years.

In addition to these two initiatives, there have been visiting faculty lectures and collaboration on peer review research projects among professors. The next steps include developing faculty exchanges and securing international funds to create new student and faculty engagement. With willing partners, good planning, and a strong motivation on behalf of the faculty to create new active learning opportunities, this collaboration will continue!


The FRN workshop was holistically successful. Aside from the workshop topics, where we learned from experts, the visiting faculty were engaged at a higher level. We returned to our respective universities and changed our teaching methods. We wanted to become better instructors and the three of us have all chosen to develop active learning techniques in the classroom. The simulations, polling, data collection, and analysis awakened the consciousness of the students and forced them to become problem solvers, even outside of the classroom. The international comparative exercise and short-term study abroad opportunities will take students out of their comfortable existence, so they can see, smell, taste, sense, and learn techniques for future implementation. Active learning allows students to learn from the professors, the experts, and each other. We applaud the FRN for these offerings and look forward to the many opportunities to come. These workshops develop skills and networks to improve faculty learning so that we can teach students about the complex problems of today and the future.


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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning