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Office hours: Instilling hope in the future

Office hours: Instilling hope in the future

Nicole L. Craw April 17, 2024

Students are anxious and angry, but they are also excited and curious when learning about the climate crisis in class. Two professors — Rebecca Potter, professor of English and affiliate faculty at the Hanley Sustainability Institute, and Erin Gibbemeyer, full-time lecturer of chemical and materials engineering and Hanley Sustainability Institute director of Developing Leaders for a Just Future — link emotions to actions and find that educating future leaders to act will hinge on one thing: hope.

 Office Hours

REBECCA POTTER: We’ve both been involved in the Hanley Sustainability Institute, teaching undergrads in the field. In environmental studies, the focus is on the natural environment. Sustainability studies addresses how people need to change their world — and the world needs changing. We are facing real environmental and social challenges that are threatening how we live. Climate change and biodiversity loss are serious concerns for our students. I’ve had students tell me after class, “Oh, no!” We see how some of our students are really feeling the weight of these issues.

ERIN GIBBEMEYER: They feel eco-anxiety:
anxiety and fear that people have over climate change and the future of the

RP: It’s an anxiety that can lead to resignation, and that can be paralyzing rather than motivating. The situation seems so overwhelming, especially for students who have their futures in front of them.

EG: I was teaching an engineering class looking at energy systems and the economy, and ways that engineers can have positive environmental impacts. At the start of the course, there’d be several [students] who, honestly, weren’t even sure how climate change related to them. I think the background of these students is very different from the background that Rebecca’s students have. But like she saw with her students, I started to see the anxiety building as the semester went on about these negative impacts we’re seeing. It started to get overwhelming, and they became very resigned to, “there’s nothing we can do to create positive change.” And I thought, this is not at all what we hope for our students, right?

RP: So, we talked about hope. I think sustainability is a fantastic framework for changing this world for the better — to change our daily lives for the better — and hope is the motivator for that. There’s great opportunity here, climate change and environmental issues aside; the idea of instilling hope is a good idea because it’s good for people. Erin and I thought that would be something to investigate more.

EG: One technique we started using was linking emotions to actions. This allows students to name their emotions and then describe how that emotion can both hinder and promote action. Engineers are not used to being asked about their emotions in the classroom, period. But I wanted them to stop distancing themselves from the problem and to really think about, how does this impact me?

RP: For my humanities students, perhaps it’s easier to talk about emotions, concerns, worries and even go deeper into what might be some root causes for those emotions. In my Sustainability Scenarios class, these issues hit home. And they began seeing themselves as becoming change agents … (I don’t really love that term, but that’s what they say). Being a change agent must start with awareness. Then comes the next part: the action. What can you do? What skill set can you bring? How do we apply what we learn? What do you do with this? And those are very empowering discussions because in this highly interdisciplinary field, there’s a lot of creativity possible in those answers.

"Once you decide things can change, things can get better, then it’s easier to think, 'Why wouldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t I be the person who makes the impact?'"

EG: I started asking my students, “When you think about climate change, how do you feel?” And there was a significant number (more than I expected) who said confused and uncertain. A lot said anxious. Some said angry. But I was shocked — very pleasantly, though — at how many said excited or curious. This got them thinking about their emotions and got them thinking that this is not just a textbook problem, this is something that impacts their lives. It got them thinking about how emotions can both hinder and promote action — then about how committing to take an action, any action, can have a positive impact on our environment … so they can think there will be life beyond climate change.

We tell engineering students all the time, “You are change makers.” And it’s so true. The skill set engineers come out with is fantastic for creating change. We want our students to feel like they have agency and the ability to foster the positive impacts we hope our graduates will have. I started asking myself, how can I help? What can I do to help them get to the point of “Yikes!” a little faster? But then start to come back around and feel like there can be

RP: It’s important to remember that just hope is not enough for our students, but that’s why they’re getting an education. We, as educators, are trying to instill in our students that they need a combination of tools to address these major problems, tools that are not limited to one discipline. You have to be a communicator, have that scientific knowledge, understand how to inspire change. To be that leader, you have to be motivated. And that motivation is underpinned by hope. You also need to be aware of the rhetoric shaping these discussions.

EG: It’s been amazing to see them, by the end of the term, start to think, “This is kind of exciting! There are interesting challenges here. I want to help make an impact.” I want to be able to help students move past the anxiety and dread. Once you decide things can change, things can get better, then it’s easier to think, “Why wouldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t I be the person who makes the impact?”

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