Unity College to add climate change to all aspects of curriculum

Kevin Isherwood, 21, of Warwick, R.I., examines a piece of chain in a Unity College class as part of his major in captive wildlife care and education. He and students Jen Amidon (center), 21, of Trumbull, Conn., and Alex Bach (right), 21, of Pittsburgh were working on a design for a mobile for elephants.
Kevin Isherwood, 21, of Warwick, R.I., examines a piece of chain in a Unity College class as part of his major in captive wildlife care and education. He and students Jen Amidon (center), 21, of Trumbull, Conn., and Alex Bach (right), 21, of Pittsburgh were working on a design for a mobile for elephants. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 24, 2013, at 6:11 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 25, 2013, at 5:53 a.m.
Stephen Mulkey
Stephen Mulkey Buy Photo

UNITY, Maine — In a Maine winter that has been notable for a historic blizzard, blustery nor’easters and intermittent warm and rainy snaps, Unity College officials are trying to crank up the heat on something that they believe is missing in higher education: an absolute focus on global climate change.

“The young adults in college today will experience progressively dangerous, disruptive climates. There’s not a thing on earth we can do to stop that — it’s in the pipeline,” Unity College President Stephen Mulkey said recently. “What we can salvage is a livable planet for our grandkids and our children.”

Toward that end, Unity College — which has branded itself as America’s Environmental College — intends to tie every aspect of its curriculum to the mitigation of climate change, according to a press release issued by the institution.

Mulkey said that he believes that there is “no more important mission of higher education” than the teaching of sustainability science, but is disappointed that most other colleges and universities do not seem to agree.

“Sustainability is the thread that connects every discipline in the academy, but the vast majority of institutions have not picked up on that thread,” he said.

For years, Unity College has attracted students who are interested in the ideas of wilderness and the environment. Its students can major in disciplines including conservation law enforcement, captive wildlife care and education, environmental writing and media studies, sustainable agriculture and adventure therapy. The student body has often been described as eclectic, with a healthy interest in on-campus activities that include tracking greenhouse emissions and dining at the annual “Hunters & Huggers Dinner,” where they can chomp on locally obtained venison as well as vegetarian delicacies.

Students filled a bus that headed south to Washington, D.C., earlier this month for a rally to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project that would bring oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. They called themselves the “Climate Riders,” said Jesse Pyles, the campus sustainability coordinator.

“It feels like it’s really kind of codifying our mission on climate change and science,” Pyles said of the new curriculum initiative. “That makes us the perfect place to … move the dial on climate change, nationally. I think it’s a little bit of a shot in the arm. It does bring renewed attention to what we are doing outside of the classroom.”

Student Marina Theberge, a 20-year-old sustainable agriculture major from Atkinson, N.H., said that she thinks the change is positive, and timely.

“Every class seems to incorporate more environmental aspects in it,” she said.

One of those classes, in the captive wildlife department, is called Enrichment and Exhibit Design. Students hunched over large tables recently as they hammered out ideas for designing toys for captive elephants which would incorporate sturdy pieces of donated firehouse and a lot of ingenuity.

“It’s part of a change in the way we keep animals in captivity,” Assistant Professor Sarah Cunningham said as she walked around the groups, giving feedback on their ideas.

Where in the past, people thought that the most important role of zoos and wildlife parks was just to save animals’ genetic material, the current thinking includes a big focus on education. That’s especially important in a world where climate change and other forces can negatively affect animal habitat.

“Climate change is a big, abstract, hard-to-understand concept,” she said. “Vanishing species are the face of climate change for a lot of people, I think. … People need to see these animals being vibrant, real and behaving as they would in the wild.”

Sarah McCoy, 21, of North Kingstown, R.I., said that climate change does affect her major in captive wildlife care.

“Because what’s happening to the habitats and ecosystems of the world affects animals,” she said, adding that the education piece is key. “It’s like an initial inspiration point. They see their favorite animal and they want to learn more about it.”

Mulkey said that classes across the curriculum, including those in law enforcement and the arts, also will be incorporating sustainability science.

“We are not abandoning the liberal arts college at all,” he said. “We’re going to give students the whole package.”

But while climate change and classes in captive wildlife care might seem to be a natural fit, it might not be the case for every subject or, for that matter, every higher education institution. Darron Collins, the president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, said that his school’s students — who will all graduate with degrees in human ecology — are focused on a way of understanding the world.

“We have lots of students who look at climate change and the environment,” Collins said. “We also have lots of students who are educators and artists and small-business owners. They leave COA with a very particular perspective on the world and an approach to problem solving that’s very, very powerful.”

He said that while the College of the Atlantic won’t switch to making its curriculum focused around issues of climate change, he does “applaud [Mulkey] and Unity.”

“Climate change is obviously one of the more pernicious threats that humanity is dealing with,” Collins said. “The more people we have who are excited and skilled at taking that on, the better.”

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