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Reviving Barbados field study through sustainability course design

Series contributor: Virginie Millien, Faculty Fellow

When I first heard about the Sustainability Education Fellows (SEF) program, it was all natural for me to apply, as it was when I was embarking on designing entirely from scratch an entire 15-credit program—four courses—on the topic of sustainable development in the Caribbean. At the time, a vision for the program was merely bourgeoning in my mind, and I felt the SEF would provide the support I needed to put it all down on paper. My intuition was right, and I am grateful I was part of the first SEF cohort.

As opposed to my own generation, which grew up in a world of endless possibilities, taking nature for granted, with maybe just a few of us wondering about that hole on top of Antarctica, today’s young people are not as lucky. “Sustainability” is everywhere, in our daily life, in our classrooms, and we are constantly reminded in the news or the scientific literature of the urgency to change the way we interact with our planet and the world around us. As a researcher working on the effects of climate warming on species, I have become all too aware of the chaotic route we have embarked on. As a teacher, I felt that I could help, just a little bit, students learn and better understand these issues. Then, I became aware of the existence of a well-hidden gem at my home university, the Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados (BRI). The BRI is the only McGill University (Faculty of Science) field station located in the tropics. That place is a textbook illustration of what achieving sustainable goals really means. The challenges are multiple and exacerbated to a level we can’t imagine in Canada. Barbados is the most densely populated island of the Caribbean, with the top three road network in the world relative to its size, just shy of a third of the size of the island of Montreal. When I was offered the opportunity by the Dean of the Faculty of Science, Bruce Lennox, to revive the then retired Barbados Field Study Semester (BFSS), it was clear that this program needed to focus on sustainable development.

But where to start? How? My past experience is limited to teaching about long-extinct species of mammals, teaching students how to identify a mammal from its skull and teeth morphology, or accompanying students in the field to trap mice and collect ticks! The BFSS is nothing like it, aiming at bringing into the classroom current global issues, inevitably embedded in the social, economic, and political dimensions of the science of sustainability. The format of the BFSS itself is also unusual. Students in the program spend three months away from home in a country with a heavy historical legacy, a colorful and distinct culture, and untold rules for interacting with each other that students need to learn. The BFSS is embedded within the community, through guest lectures given by professors from the local University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, seminars by Barbados government officers, field trips, and hands-on research projects.

It is with a relatively clear vision of what I wanted to achieve with the BFSS that I entered the SEF program – I am a dreamer, but I had a gigantic list of questions on exactly how to achieve my goals. It was a bit intimidating at first, but then I quickly discovered the value of interacting with my fellow faculty members, sharing our experience, and brainstorming together. The different speakers who came to us and uncovered the vast amount of teaching resources available to us was quite eye-opening, as well. I had no idea, not because I am not curious or eager to learn, but because I have no time. But I felt the true value of the program was to have us sit together in a room for several hours and work together. We are all so busy that there is really no other way to keep us away from our everyday work duties! I truly enjoyed the two long retreats that were organized at the beginning of the program, and think this is when I achieved the most, when it all clicked. Having us paired with a Student Fellow was an interesting experience, too. My Student Fellow was working in a field very distinct from mine – I am a scientist and she is in management, and I appreciated her distinct way of thinking, what she brought to the conversation; even our language was different at times! Yet I had no recipe on how to make this work, and I wish I had done a better job at clarifying my expectations for our collaboration. I do have to build 15 credits after all, and have a deadline coming up soon! Because we had such a different way of thinking, and I value this for the resulting creativity, I felt I would have been more productive if I had worked with a student who was working in my own field.

This will be my message to the next cohort of Sustainability Education Fellows: the most constructive feedback may come from a student who has taken classes in a similar field, using similar teaching methods. Despite this challenge, I feel very positive about where I stand today. The BFSS has taken shape, down to the daily schedule of all four courses; I have secured most of the guest lectures and seminars, and almost figured out all the field trips. For the SEF, I decided to focus on the syllabus of the first course of the BFSS, Sustainability in the Caribbean (GEOG 340). But in truth, I have also worked on two other courses, Caribbean Climate and Weather (ATOC 341) and Biodiversity in the Caribbean (BIOL 343). The format and structure of these three courses are all similar and they mainly differ by their curriculum. My next goal is now to finalize the fourth course, Barbados Research Project (FSCI 444), for which students undertake a research project. This one requires a lot of networking and exchanges with collaborators in Barbados to identify relevant projects that are meaningful to Barbados and address a research gap identified by Barbados experts, as well as finding local mentors to assist the students in the field. It is only by engaging with the local community that I will make the BFSS sustainable in the long term. Being part of the SEF program certainly helped me get closer to my dream.

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Image credit: Image of Students from the Barbados Field Study Semester Programs at the Bellairs Research Institute provided by Virginie Millien and https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/sustainable-development-goals-still-life_38687439.htm#query=sustainability%20blocks&position=11&from_view=search&track=ais by Freepik

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