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Collective Environmental Literacy

August 31, 2020
Austin Stack
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Austin Stack giving a thumbs up in front of a laptop

This summer I worked on the Collective Environmental Literacy project – an effort to both measure and implement environmental literacy in the collective sense.  Climate change – and most other environmental problems we will need to face – is a wicked problem with a seemingly endless amount of manifestations.  Consequently, we cannot afford to engage with it using our traditional canon of science and solutions – one that emphasizes individual action and progress.  To really give ourselves a chance with climate change, we need collective action and collective thought.  This ideology is existent within the real-world environment, however seems to have skipped our education system.  Individual action and literacy are still the status quo goals within environmental education.  The need to pivot away from this is what drew me to the Collective Environmental Literacy (CEL) project!

Before working on this project, my interest in sustainability related issues had only really manifested itself in a technical way.  To me being a part of the climate solution meant being an engineer.  Someone who knew how to maximize the efficiency of a solar array, prepare the grid for electrification, or prevent heat loss in a building.  Working in a social sciences lab this summer gave me an opportunity to approach this problem through a different lens.  Now, I see the solution as something that will involve just as much human progress as technological process.  Learning this via a hands-on experience proved to be incredibly valuable to me.  I don’t think I would have put myself in a place to experience this angle of sustainability otherwise.

Another interesting note of the summer was figuring out the best way to conduct research and – more importantly – get to know people in a remote setting.  Logistically speaking, I think research that doesn’t involve field work (like mine) was pretty identical to how it normally would be.  I feel lucky to have been working with great mentors and a great team on the CEL project throughout the summer.  I think the most important thing we did was focusing on just getting to know each other and talking about how our lives were going while on our zoom meetings.  Research questions could be answered via email or in short phone calls, so reserving weekly meetings for ‘face’ time was super refreshing, and I definitely feel connected to the team!