This year, the University of Connecticut launched a new environmental literacy general educational requirement that ensures students graduate having taken at least one three-credit course anchored to environmental topics.
A long-sought goal for a passionate group of students and faculty members, the environmental literacy component bolsters the university’s position as a leading institution of higher learning committed to sustainability and environmentalism.
Initial conversations about an environmental literacy requirement began about 15 years ago, says David Wagner, ecology and evolutionary biology professor. The requirement was recently proposed and approved by the University Senate in 2018.
Wagner, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, a professor of geography, and John Clausen, a recently retired professor of natural resources and the environment, were among a group of more than a dozen faculty members who worked in concert with students to achieve the effort.
The energy and voices of the students was “key,” says Atkinson-Palombo. The framework between faculty support and student endeavors, including petitions, letters, speeches on the floor of the University Senate, and articles in the Daily Campus, demonstrated the students’ desire for instituting the new general education requirement.
“I work quite closely with students, and the environment is one of the issues they are most concerned about,” says Atkinson-Palombo. “They see UConn as a fundamental place to start doing something about this.”
This sentiment is echoed by Emily Kaufman ’21 who was involved in developing the general education requirement. Starting when she was a freshman, Kaufman helped define the meaning of “environmental literacy” and identify what classes would fit under the definition.
“I think this is one of the most important things we can do right now as a university,” says Kaufman. “Environmental issues are an interdisciplinary issue. Every single profession that students pursue will have some interaction with the environment and climate change issues.”
A critical component of the new requirement is the broad view of the courses that feature environmental issues. Environmentalism is not confined to science; it encompasses everything from political science to dance, says Wagner. “Students will be able to engage with the issues through the way they see the world.”
Wagner is hopeful that the partnership established between faculty and students, which was successful in the adoption of the requirement, can be applied to other issues on campus.
“The faculty-student infrastructure that was built was great. There are so many ways this model would work for other initiatives,” says Wagner.
Kaufman adds, “though it required a lot of work and fine-tuning, this process showed me that it is possible to make changes and have a role in leadership, even as a freshman.”
The current list of classes that meet the “E” requirement is available online in the undergraduate course catalog.