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Interdisciplinary Insights: Teaching Climate Change Through Different Lenses

Cds101 trio faculty
Cds101 trio faculty
From left to right: Paul Shepson, Christine Gilbert and Michael Rubenstein, who teach CDS 101: Energy, Climate and Society.

The urgency of understanding and addressing climate change is paramount as we experience unprecedented environmental challenges, from rising temperatures to extreme weather events.

Recognizing the interconnected nature of this global dilemma, three Stony Brook University faculty adopted an interdisciplinary approach to convey the complexity and urgency of climate-related issues in the course CDS 101: Energy, Climate, and Society.

The course is co-taught by three faculty who are each present at every lecture. Paul Shepson, dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) and an atmospheric chemist, provides students with the scientific foundation to understand the process of climate change and related challenges we will likely face in the future.

Michael Rubenstein, associate professor of English and director of the Humanities Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences, helps students make sense of how we came to this climate impasse and its cultural representations.

Christine Gilbert, assistant professor of climate communication in the School of Communication and Journalism and SoMAS, teaches students communication best practices and provides insight into how public discourse around climate change shapes our reality and our personal responses.

The course was first offered in Spring 2023, and after positive student feedback and increased interest, returned in Spring 2024 in a larger space to accommodate more students. The course has doubled in size to 120 students, with plans to increase enrollment further.

Cds 101 class

“Shepson shows them exactly how science works and why it works,” Rubenstein said. “I show them how the greatest writers and filmmakers in the culture try to dramatize the trauma, and then Gilbert shows them what they can do, and how they can be most effective in communicating the issues and how to best work toward solutions.”

The emphasis of Gilbert’s teaching is on how to communicate climate change to non-scientists. “Some of the reasons we’ve seen changes in people’s attitudes is that people have experienced firsthand abnormal weather events that we know are attributed to climate change,” she said. “And so it’s about how do we use those opportunities? How do we use those events kind of as a way to frame climate change, something that does impact you, something that is important to you? How do we help people kind of make sense of the science in a way that benefits their everyday life and making decisions for themselves and their family? Why does it matter to them, and why should they vote differently or make different decisions?”

Rubenstein teaches English, literature, poetry and film, and his questions to the class focus on cultural manifestations of the current period. “While it’s clear what needs to be done — we need to stop burning fossil fuels — the question is, what does it feel like to live in this period, and in the period 250 years ago, up until the present, when we started doing this and changed the entire quality of human life, and nobody was aware that what they were doing was destroying the conditions for our the future, atmospherically and environmentally,” said Rubenstein.

The path to moving forward and making positive change also requires us to look back. “The last 150 years of human history are unlike any other in the last 200,000 years of Homosapiens, the last 11 to 12,000 years of written time and written language, because we’re using hundreds of times more energy in our daily lives than anybody in human history,” Rubenstein said. “It’s literally a blue flame in the middle of a long history. And we think of it as normal, we think of it as having a long arc because humans are short lived. But this is a really tiny portion of our history, and so we need to come to terms with all of that, to figure out how to move forward.”

Summer 2023 was the Earth’s hottest since global records began in 1880. “We went to a summer after the first course offering, and New York was blanketed in smoke, Pakistan was flooded, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people,” said Rubenstein. “All of the things that were being predicted were happening. I feel shell-shocked, that there is more urgency surrounding the questions raised in the course.”

The main message for students is that regardless of their future career, they may find a way to address climate change in their work, and the interdisciplinary approach empowers students with a multifaceted toolkit, fostering a more holistic and effective response to this global challenge.

“The solution to climate change requires basically all of us working together,” said Gilbert. “To model for the students what it looks like to be interdisciplinary, and to have faculty from very different backgrounds come together and say, this is what I have spent my career on, is really powerful. You don’t have to be from any particular major in order to address climate change in your work. Climate change is just such a huge problem that it mandates everyone thinking about it from their own unique perspective and because we’re all so different, our solution is going to be better.”

The highlight of the course for Shepson is being able to take a step back from his work as dean and to teach a diverse group of students from such varied majors. “What surprised me most about the course is how easy it was to have really difficult conversations with students from such different backgrounds,” he said. “There are engineering students and science and art and music students, and everybody has a different perspective about the importance of the subject. They have different emotions attached to the subject and different ideas about how and why and how fast we should define a better path for humans in society.”

“Courses at the 100-level are really focused on an individual discipline, but I love this course, because it accomplishes what a university should be about — connecting complementary disciplines that exist on a campus where they are so often not connected,” he added. “Going to the class and talking to these students,  it’s just pure thrill. Just fun and exciting. This is what it is all about.”

— Beth Squire

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2 comments

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  • I love that faculty are working together … it’s difficult to actually offer a course that is co-taught. Great JOB!!

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