Through real-world projects, Brown environmental course explores contemporary climate issues

Environmental Studies 0110 is both an introductory course on environmental change in the 21st century and a hands-on lab where students engage with how local communities and the natural environment intersect.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When the firefighters started backing bystanders away from the scene and urgently knocking on doors of nearby homeowners, the three Brown University students who called them knew they’d made the right choice.

It happened in October 2022 in Providence. The students were measuring methane leaks in Providence when they detected a massive one at a manhole on College Hill. Left unchecked, such a leak could have led to an explosion, so the students alerted the fire department, which blocked off the area with trucks and cruisers while the utility company raced to fix the issue.

The scene caught the students by complete surprise. Reflecting on it a year later, they say the biggest shock is that the entire episode started as a classroom assignment.

“I just remember thinking: ‘How did this happen?’” said Brown junior Ava Ward. “It was not the kind of impact we expected from a class project.”

Although not always as explosive, that type of real-world impact has long been at the foundation of Environmental Studies 0110: Humans, Nature and the Environment: Addressing Environmental Change in the 21st Century.

The 100-person course, which launched a decade ago at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, focuses on how humans and the environment intersect, and explores possible solutions to the many impacts that individuals, communities and institutions have on the natural environment.

Part lecture and seminar, part hands-on lab, the course serves as a launching pad into different disciplinary approaches of studying the environment. It also immerses students in contemporary environmental issues through innovative assignments and community-engaged projects.

“The course itself is a little bit of everything,” said Dawn King, IBES’s director of undergraduate studies and the course’s lead instructor since it launched. “It introduces environmental studies through multiple topics and disciplinary lenses, and allows the students to see the myriad approaches to solving environmental challenges play out through engaging with local organizations and our Rhode Island community.”

Students have assisted local government groups, nonprofits and even national organizations by assessing forest management strategies, conducting public health analyses of neighborhoods, organizing conferences and informing public outreach campaigns.

“The success largely resides in the fact that we always listen to the community partner needs,” King said. “This guides every project.”

Other assignments have included attending a Save the Bay cleanup and a tour of one of Rhode Island’s wastewater treatment facilities to see how water is purified. The popular midterm called the “bus exercise” involves students taking the RIPTA bus — which Brown students can access for free — to three spots in Providence that are often beset by climate-change related issues.

Callie Durso-Finley, a Brown junior taking the course this fall, used the opportunity to get a better look at some Providence’s green spaces, including Roger Williams Park. Seeing the various streams and ponds, she found herself reflecting how people can’t fully access them due to toxic bacteria, a topic covered in class.

“You see these problems right up close, which makes them feel very important,” Durso-Finley said.

Empowering students through engaged scholarship

The class, which is offered each fall, is a requirement for students in Brown’s environmental studies and environmental science programs. It runs as a Community-Based Learning and Research course in Brown’s Engaged Scholars Program, which helps students engage with community partners to investigate important social issues.

Students are split into groups to take on projects from community organizations such as the Rhode Island Department of Health and Rhode Island Department of Emergency Management, Rhode Island Food Policy Council and Osamequin Farm. The projects support and inform the work of the community-based organizations that partner with the class, while also helping students gain key experience and competencies — like teamwork, problem solving, leadership and interpersonal skills — working with external stakeholders. To date, King estimates about 1,000 students have worked with more than 40 community-based groups to produce white papers, websites, analyses based on field work, and a range of other deliverables.

“Overall, the experience provides a broad overview of how social science and other broad research projects are done,” said Leslie Acton, a lecturer in environment and society who is co-teaching the course with King this year and will take the reins next year as its primary instructor.

The majority of the work happens during weekly lab sessions where students meet in teams, using the time to conduct research, have planning discussions, or synthesize work into a paper or website.

Sometimes the work has a more boots-on-the-ground component.

That’s how 15 students found themselves measuring methane leaks around Providence last fall. As part of their Engaged Scholars project, the group spent the semester helping the nonprofit Climate Action Rhode Island restart its gas leak testing program, called Gasbusters Rhode Island. When students found leaks, they combined those discoveries with data on existing leaks to create publicly accessible maps on a website, helping to raise public awareness about the danger of methane leaks and what people can do about them.

A year earlier, a separate student team worked with attorneys from the University of Miami’s Center for Ethics and Public Service to help contextualize how health disparities and environmental injustices are exacerbated due to impacts of climate change in Miami-Dade County, Florida. One part of the research outlined to what degree Black residents are being priced out of their existing communities and forced financially to move to affordable housing in places more susceptible to climate related issues such as flooding.

“It was really nice to have been a sophomore in college here and do an assignment that you felt had a purpose outside the classroom,” said now Brown junior Carl-Axel Lagercrantz, who worked on the project in 2021 and subsequently helped to guide the methane group as an undergraduate teaching assistant last year. “We were able to meaningfully contribute to making both these communities better places.”

Other projects from this fall include students working with the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, which advocates for the rights of marginalized Rhode Islanders, to get the word out about moratoriums for utility shutoffs, making it more difficult for power companies to shut off heat in the coldest months of the year or power in the hottest months for the state’s most vulnerable residents. The work has involved passing out flyers to let people know their rights, attending housing court hearings, speaking with landlords and gathering testimonials for a podcast.

Another group of students is working with the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island to research shellfish waste in the state and explore processing methods and infrastructure needed to sustainably repurpose it.

The group has done extensive research, reading studies on the subject and gathering firsthand accounts from experts and stakeholders like local restaurants — some students even attended local oyster festivals to speak with vendors about changes they want to see. The students authored a white paper that the center will use to inform their ongoing sustainability work.

That type of tangible endgame for their research helped motivate students to do their best work, Durso-Finley said: “As a college student, sometimes when you’re doing stuff in class like writing a paper, you think: ‘Okay, a million people before have written this paper,’ so I’m just doing it as an exercise to help me learn — vs. I’m writing this paper for someone who’s going to use it to do something good.”