Of the courses surveyed, assessments popular in environmental justice (EJ) courses include participation (63%), term papers and other extended individual projects (50%), team projects and multiple shorter papers (31% each), and reading responses (28%).
This summary focuses on notable alternative assignments that offer unusual and promising approaches to student learning. A number of those, highlighted below in bold, have been selected for more in-depth explication. Links to classes are provided when possible.
This page is organized in the following fashion:
Notable Class Assignments Described:
Short pieces for publication in a national newspaper, campus magazine, religious, or local news source (Clark Atlanta, College of New Rochelle, Santa Clara)
Portfolio assignment including five disparate approaches to understanding a particular community’s EJ problems: community profile, application of Catholic social justice principle, fictional alternative autobiography, fictional solution narrative, op-ed for Catholic news source. (Santa Clara)
This creative assessment offers a variety of approaches to help students understand the experience of people living in situations of environmental injustice, with a short written piece culminating each phase. Warner begins by asking students to engage with facts. They choose a location in the Central Valley of California, about 50 miles from campus, then research and write a two-page essay about the community’s profile, encounters with environmental injustice, and external social power dynamics that affect the community with regard to EJ. In the second phase of the portfolio, students bring in their learning about Catholic social justice principles to apply these to their chosen community’s situation and the “thought and behavior” patterns that generate them (two-page essay). With this factual and theoretical background, students then engage their imaginative and empathetic faculties by writing a “fictional alternative autobiography” as if they had been born into the community (three-page essay). Warner is unique in this dimension to my knowledge, and his approach is consonant with Santa Clara’s Jesuit character, bringing in a powerful personal dimension to students’ learning.
With a thorough, multifaceted understanding of life in a Central Valley community, students are then asked to move toward developing solutions to the environmental injustice. Part IV of the portfolio again has an imaginative character: staying in the roles as fictional community members, students write a two-page essay envisioning how they would use their understanding of Catholic social justice teaching to collaborate with others in that community in promoting EJ. Finally, students bring their factual, imaginative, and solution-focused work together into a persuasive op-ed piece (750 words) written as if for publication in a Catholic newspaper or website.
The variety of writing tasks, the multiplicity of perspectives, and the incorporation of imaginative empathy make this a standout assignment for EJ courses. It may be particularly helpful for faculty whose students do not have the opportunity for field visits to nearby communities facing environmental injustice.
“Birding to save the world”: weekly morning natural-history exploration followed by afternoon sharing with individual child “co-explorer” from local low-income middle school (UWisconsin-Madison/O’Kane).
O’Kane’s work provides an innovative and unique integration of environmental justice and natural history: two realms that rarely overlap, to the detriment of both. As she describes in a recent New York Times article, after a decade-long career in human-rights journalism, she moved to New Orleans to teach, arriving one month before Katrina. The resilience of the birds at her feeder, rebuilding their own lives after they were torn apart by the hurricane, provided sustenance and inspiration during her own recovery.
Based on this experience, O’Kane developed a course that brings her students together with those in a local low-income middle school, with the goal of opening the natural world to the children while building academic and social skills, and providing much-needed after-school programming. The college students learn about the lives of the children and about the natural world, and come to understand “how race and class influence how we all perceive and experience nature.” They also examine how local policies affect natural areas available to urban residents.
In this course, UWisconsin-Madison (UWM) students meet weekly. Mornings (two hours) are devoted to ornithological study in different Madison natural areas, in which students acquire the learning that they will share with a child in the afternoons. Students are also assigned readings on natural-history and urban park issues to support their field exercises. They are also required to spend an hour weekly doing birding on their own to polish their identification skills.
Weekly afternoons on the same day are devoted to working with middle-school students, “co-explorers,” in a local park adjacent to the children’s neighborhood. UWM students each walk with a child (whether the same or a different child each week is unclear), exploring the park and engaging with the child’s questions. Students are required to find answers to at least two of these questions per week and to share these with the class on a shared Facebook page. Students also write weekly structured reflections in two parts: (a) about their experience with their child the previous week, and (b) about the assigned readings.
Because almost all EJ courses focus on unequal exposure to toxics and on differential treatment with respect to environmental laws and policies, O’Kane’s course provides a much-needed balance in focusing on lack of equality in access to the benefits of connection with the natural world.
Community-based research in extended field study. Three days at UWisconsin-Madison, then two weeks in UTexas-Brownsville. Teams of two to three go door-to-door collecting survey info in mornings; afternoon lectures; evenings creating database. Students also plan and conduct health-education workshops. Support from local health centers (UWisconsin-Madison/Arenas, Magaña, Lopez).
This is an intensive course, primarily held in the field with an initial on-campus section (three days) to introduce background information and for training in field-research methods. Students travel from Madison to Brownsville, on the US-Mexico border at the Gulf Coast, where they work with staff of the Brownsville Community Health Center (BCHC), community leaders of adjacent Matamoros, MX, and faculty from Instituto Tecnológico de Matamoros to formulate and carry out 35 hours of community-based research, plus 10 hours of service-learning. Research findings are used by BCHC. Students also execute workshops to educate local people about health issues.
Students are assessed using semi-weekly journal entries (two weeks), a final team presentation on research experience, findings, and applications, and a final individual paper on the student’s experience and personal learning.
This assignment (developed by Dr. Trileigh Tucker) offers a contrasting example of an unusual exercise that helps students develop critical-thinking skills useful in assessing EJ situations. Students select teammates and then the teams choose an EJ topic that is complex so that each side’s perspective on the situation is plausible. For instance, one team chose as their issue nuclear waste on Native American reservations. Each team divides into two pairs, one per approach to the issue, then spends two weeks investigating and developing its argument. Class time is given for teams to work on their cases and to prepare filing statements (one page; 25% of debate grade) for the entire class to read in preparation for that debate. During the debate, each team pair has 20 minutes to present its case (50% of debate grade), then the “jurors” (the rest of the class) have 20 minutes to decide on a consensus verdict (25% of debate grade for participation).