Session 2 – Teaching Environment and Sustainability Courses During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

Transforming Barriers into Opportunities

Wednesday, March 31, 10:00AM-12:00PM

 Chair: Linda Silka, Senator George J. Mitchell Center, University of Maine

In response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions of higher learning throughout the United States locked down their campuses and needed to alter their ways of teaching such as that which involved students working directly with partners on environmental issues. This was true for universities in New England participating in the multi-year Campuses for Environmental Stewardship (CES) program. This session discusses changes made to courses at five highly varied public universities in New England that were among those funded by a grant to Maine Campus Compact from the Davis Educational Foundation. The primary aim of the CES program is to integrate environmental service learning (SL) into college curricula and these programs needed to find new ways to do so.

The introduction will highlight the importance of this change and the implications for work on environmental issues and sustainability. Then five teachers/sustainability leaders at University of Maine Farmington, University of Southern Maine, University of Connecticut, Southern Connecticut State University, and Central Connecticut State University will share how strategies for the five courses were altered in the fall of 2020 to accommodate the threat of COVID-19 in the classroom. The authors, instructors of the aforementioned courses, all had to transition significant portions of their instruction to online formats or outdoor classrooms. Information is provided about the changes made to these courses and the lessons learned by each of the instructors. Specifics about the impacts of the shift to virtual teaching-learning will discussed, with particular focus on the impacts to service learning and environmental components of the courses.

Session Overview:



Linda Silka, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, University of Maine

The Campuses for Environmental Stewardship (CES) program offered through Maine Campus Compact, in partnership with Campus Compact for Southern New England and New Hampshire Campus Compact assists faculty to follow an interdisciplinary model to create community partnerships and address critical sustainability and food insecurity challenges. The CES program is built around hands-on and experiential SL in which students work with partners to engage in environmental stewardship and food insecurity challenges. The CES program offers a two-year faculty fellowship program to support development and enhancement of SL in environment and sustainability-related courses via a collaborative network of scholars from many New England campuses.

The 2018-20 CES Fellows cohort was successfully approaching its final semester of collaboration when COVID-19 broke out in March 2020. We spent the remainder of 2020 responding to steep and unprecedented challenges for maintaining SL goals at our respective campuses. We adjusted and adapted, often in unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances. We pursued important opportunities for change, and have learned lessons from our collective experience. We see value in reflecting on teaching SL courses during a pandemic, including the skills we have gained fostering adaptive capacity as educators, and challenges we observe in effectively training our students and fostering a healthy community of learners. By the fall semester, for example, some universities restricted off-campus student activities, and travel became impractical under social distancing requirements. At other campuses, face-to-face contact was reduced or eliminated through a conversion to online or hybrid coursework, which made it difficult or impossible to continue community-based work with partners as it had occurred before.

Engaging Student Leadership, Followership, and Self-Governance in Environmental Service-Learning During Covid-19

Suzanne Huminski
Sustainability Coordinator and Adjunct Faculty, Southern Connecticut State University

As Fall 2020 progressed, a serious recurrence of Covid-19 spread throughout Connecticut, including New Haven where SCSU’s campus is located. For SCSU, this meant strict limitations to field work and community engagement activities off-campus, significant shifts for curriculum and planning in a short time frame, and a need to buffer ongoing unpredictable circumstance. I had four goals to adapt HON 300: Introduction to Service-Learning to meet Covid-19 safety requirements in Fall 2020.  In non-pandemic times, the course blends traditional classroom style sessions with environmental service projects in partnership with local community organizations.  My goals were to:

  • Successfully manage efficient course adaptation planning and delivery in unpredictable and rapidly changing circumstances
  • Create valuable learning and skill development opportunities for students by working together
  • Provide valuable service to the campus and broader community through service projects
  • Promote student health and wellbeing during the pandemic through outdoor activity and face-to-face meetings

To reach these goals, I increased my reliance on student leadership and self-governance, incorporating principles of service-learning into practice for course implementation. The result was expanded and improved experiential learning and leadership skill development for students. HON 300 met outdoors, weekly, through the end of October to install a new Pollinator Pathway at the Campus Community Garden, which will enable improved harvest quality and quantity, revitalized habitat and ecosystem services, and an improved community outdoor learning space.  This case study will outline three assignments adapted for the course, which were key for reaching the four goals listed above. The assignments themselves can be modified for many disciplines, and rely on an experiential approach for teaching and learning. Students responded positively to utilizing the “real-world” opportunity to learn from complex challenges of Covid-19, and making a difference to the community through service.

Taking the Campus as a Service-Learning Partner for Environment and Sustainability Coursework

Jesse Minor
Dept. of Geography & Environmental Planning, University of Maine at Farmington

A video of this talk is available.

UMaine Farmington’s Fall 2020 semester placed limitations on university travel, including restrictions on how many students can ride in a 15-passenger van (2), as well as strict requirements for physical distancing and decreased capacity in classrooms. Course activities were limited to the UMF campus, eliminating previously-planned community-engaged service-learning projects. Instead, I taught Environmental Field Methods almost entirely outdoors, using campus as the classroom. To accommodate outdoor learning, I converted short in-class lectures to remotely-delivered online discussions, and took more time for hands-on practice with the field tools and data collection techniques. To replace the community service-learning partner, we worked in the campus environment on two parallel research projects. One project investigated the microclimate conditions and heat island effects in the brand-new UMF Campus Community Garden. The second research project estimated the carbon sequestered in the UMF campus forest. Students conducted plot- and transect-based measurements of forest structure and species composition. Allometric equations convert tree diameter measurements into standing biomass and carbon. These campus-based projects provided meaningful, real-world applications of environmental research methods, analysis, and reporting while simultaneously supporting campus sustainability efforts and initiatives. The UMF campus environment proved to be a robust outdoor classroom in which course-based objectives could be safely and efficiently conducted, while useful data on important elements of the campus environment could be collected.

The Goal of Highlighting the Environmental and Sustainable Benefits of Using Locally Sourced Food: The COVID-19 Impact TAH 222 Food and Beverage Management

Sara E. Ghezzi, Ph.D.
University of Wyoming (previously University of Southern Maine)

A video of this talk is available.

Hospitality education demands a hands-on practical approach in its instruction. The COVID-19 pandemic halted this teaching method. Due to the regulations and safety concerns created by the pandemic, major adjustments had to be made concerning the culminating assignment of the class. In an ideal situation, students would develop a marketing campaign to sell tickets for a dinner that they planned and developed. The main goal of this activity was to allow students to practice management skills, including financial aspects of running a kitchen. Unfortunately, the usual routine of this assignment was altered. Students continued to work in groups but planned the dinner in a mock online restaurant setting, instead of cooking and serving the dinner. Students still developed their leadership and team building skills by their engagement in the mock sessions. It was important and helpful to allow students to maintain a sense of community and continue their participation in working as a unit.

A major learning objective included in the course is to highlight the environmental and sustainable benefits of using locally sourced food. Students contacted local vendors and farmers online instead of meeting them in person when choosing their food items to be used in a standardized recipe of their choice. The introduction of the farm-to-table mindset gave students a better understanding and appreciation of the local economic impact of locally sourced food. In addition, students gained an understanding in how shipping in out-of-state foods can bring about negative environmental impacts.

Fall 2020 COVID-19 Challenges for Conversion to Campus-based Research Projects

Charles E. Button
Department of Geography, Central Connecticut State University

A video of this talk is available.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CCSU immediately switched all courses to online modalities and required all students to evacuate the residence halls. The university had instituted a prohibition on all faculty and student travel and on-campus group gatherings and events. For my Introduction to Sustainability course, this meant all course materials, activities, lectures, and in-the-classroom activities had to be converted to online formats. These changes significantly impacted the course assignments and community engagement components of the course and all community service learning activities had to be eliminated or altered.

Students were required to attend an online webinar, conference, workshop, TED Talk, or similar activity instead of participating at an in-person activity. The greatest impact was the elimination of the group projects which would have involved students collaborating with governmental agencies and/or community groups to host an Earth Week event on the CCSU campus. Similarly, students also lost the experience of presenting their research at the Annual CCSU Global Environmental Sustainability Symposium. Other impacts included a loss of academic material because of the slower pace of delivering lectures in a virtual setting.

Turning Service-Learning Inwards:  Applying Intersectional Compassionate Pedagogy (ICP) Online

Phoebe C Godfrey
Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut

A video of this talk is available.

In this section I focus on my student-centered pedagogy, that I have identified as representing Intersectional Compassionate Pedagogy (ICP), along with my concern for student mental health and the need to ‘turn the barriers of current situation into an opportunity’ during the pandemic in relation to turning my SL requirement inwards.  As such, I decided not to seek service-learning opportunities that would require students to be on the computer even more. Rather, I sought to invite them to look at themselves and to question who they are as socially constructed intersecting identities, in order to gain a deeper understanding of themselves in relation to others and their intersecting identities, as well as in relation to physical spaces and places.  I also invited them to use their SL hours as an opportunity for ‘self-healing’ / ‘grounding’ / ‘creative recovery’ so that they can be in the future of service to their families / communities and to play a role in creating a more just, peaceful and verdant world.  Given the focus on intersectionality they also had to work on critically analyzing their intersectional identities in relation to the activities they chose so as to ensure their on-going sociological analysis of their experiences. Based on student feedback, I will continue to invite students to ‘turn SL inwards’ even as it is hoped that we can return to more active community-based forms of SL in the near future.