AAC&U Conference in Portland!

I interrupt my musings on the UCSD climate change course for a brief series of reports from the AAC&U conference in Portland, Oregon, which is starting this evening.  I am very excited to be here.  I used to live near Portland many years ago and it was a happy time in a beautiful place.  There is a science fiction story that has been in my mind since I arrived here, in which an alien, about to return to his planet from a sojourn on Earth, is asked what he liked the best about his visit.   He says “the people with green hair.”

So when I woke up this morning at the house of an old friend who lives on a mountain, there, outside my window, were the green-haired people: shockingly tall trees, their trunks shaggy with moss, reaching up to the sky.

An upcoming post on this blog is about the power of words in the context of education in general and climate change in particular.  I wonder — if we habitually referred to trees as “the green-haired people,” whether we’d think of them as more than potential furniture or fuel or inconveniences.  The word ‘people’ does not have to mean human people, and need not be anthropomorphic, but simply imply beings that exist in their own right.  Would that change how we view trees?  Would that prevent the massive degree of deforestation the world over?  I doubt it, but it might shift things in that direction.

The view from the hotel is less pleasant than that from my friend’s house, but the rain mist and the cloud-brushed hilltops above the buildings are beautiful — and familiar, despite my absence of more than a decade.  The conference program on my desk looks exciting: “General Education and Assessment: Disruptions, Innovations and Opportunities.”  I like the word “disruptions” because it suggests getting out of a rut.  And of course in the context of climate change, or “climate disruption,” we humans need disruptions in our paradigms, too, if we are to deal with it.  While I am eager to learn as much as I can about revitalizing undergraduate education, what I am most looking forward to is the workshop regarding the STIRS program.

My case study for the workshop is about oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, an issue that is at the intersection of climate science (physics, geophysics, biology, chemistry), economics, society, and culture.  I hope it will provides a means for students to wrestle with real-world scenarios that have shades of gray rather than black and white, clear-cut answers.  While the case for anthropogenic climate change is unequivocal, the means by which we might change our ways are still uncertain.  My case study is of course at a very tentative, beginning stage. I have been reading a lot, learning a lot, and talking to people in the field in Alaska, where I plan to set my fictional community.  I expect the project to evolve as I learn more.

Part of my excitement has to do with my growing conviction that interdisciplinarity is key to deep learning, and that it can be accomplished without sacrificing rigor.  Climate change is a classic case of a problem where one discipline or even the sciences taken together are insufficient to either fully understand or deal with the tangled mess of phenomena, issues and situations.  I have been experimenting with approaches to physics pedagogy that are sometimes wildly unconventional, and I find that for the most part they enhance both enjoyment and learning.  Barriers between disciplines, between the student as a person and the subject – all have their uses, but rigid barriers can stifle the imagination and produce an alternate reality that poorly mimics the real world.  So, down with barriers, say I.  (With qualifiers, of course – in a sufficiently complicated world there are always qualifiers).

More to come – stay tuned!

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