One Day Workshop, University of Edinburgh, 15 Nov 2015

Supported by the:

PSA Environmental Politics Specialist Group; Higher Education Academy; University of Edinburgh

(For access to the resources employed during the day, please see the HEA website.)


The workshop began with co-organiser Elizabeth Bomberg (Univ of Edinburgh) introducing the motivation for the workshop and its focus on active learning in environmental politics. Students (indeed all of us) learn more by doing than by passive listening. The area of environmental politics is rich with possibilities for active learning, including negotiation simulations, group projects and presentations, placements, field trips; volunteering, community projects; student-staff competitions. This workshop was dedicated to an overview and discussion of these possibilities, experiences, sharing of good practice; addressing challenges (and of course lots of action!)

Session 1: Setting the Stage

Dr Sherilyn MacGregor (Keele University)
Dr Sherilyn MacGregor (Keele University)

Dr Sherilyn MacGregor (Univ of Keele) did a great job setting the scene by outlining ‘current developments in environmental politics teaching’.  She began with an overview of themes most likely to be covered (theory, issues, actors, policies) but also highlighted some of the newer or ‘hot’ issues climate justice, corporate governance  sovereignty and security, transition, mainstreaming sustainable consumption.  She then elicited wide ranging discussion by outlining key challenges (the sheer scope and wicked nature of environmental issues, but also the need for greater diversity, inclusivity, and critical reflection or ‘reflexivity’).   We used this backdrop to stage the rest of the day and its focus on active learning and how it can be used to egage students with these topics and debates.

Session 2: Active learning – Best Practice’

Dr Louise Maythorne (Bath Spa University)
Dr Louise Maythorne (Bath Spa University)

The second session built on the morning’s discussion by illustrating three practical examples of active learning.  Lucie Stokes (University of Edinburgh) introduced a system of short student placements that has been popular with both students and external partners.  The scheme brings academic expertise to environmental and international development organisations, while the students enjoy applying their knowledge outside the classroom; finding academic and employability benefits a real consequence of ‘active learning’.  Louise Maythorne (Bath Spa University) then demonstrated the application of online resources in the classroom.  Tools such as Twitter, Pinterest, Wordle and SMS polling engage students in new ways and allow students to be the producers of knowledge rather than consumers.  A live poll of the (obliging!) workshops participants showed that there was a high level of interest in room!  Finally, Elizabeth Bomberg (University of Edinburgh) presented some of the challenges and strategies that assessing active learning presents.  Our discussions concluded that clear guidelines upfront, and the introduction of peer review, can make active learning not only engaging for the students but also academically rigorous.

Session 3: Negotiation Simulation

Dr Clare Saunders (Exeter University) leads her sustainability simulation
Dr Clare Saunders (Exeter University) leads her sustainability simulation (Photo: Elena Gorianova)

After a delicious veggie lunch, the afternoon was devoted to a pioneering and hugely engaging simulation of sustainable development negotiations, led by Dr Clare Saunders of the University of Exeter. Joined by several Edinburgh environmental politics and IR students, the workshop participants were teamed into groups of two or three, with each assuming the role of key international actors such as the USA, China and the EU. From here, two hours of enjoyable but fiercely contested negotiations took place, with each ‘state’ seeking to pursue its own interests. The simulation concluded with a highly innovative live vote, where the outcomes of the participants’ diplomatic skills were met with cheers and boos alike. The team behind the simulation are currently finalising the details of the activity before launching it officially, but for a taste of the experience, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Lkuw1aREPY&feature=youtu.be

Concluding Session: Reflection and Feedback

The workshop ended with summary of key themes and reflections.  The key challenges were reviewed (these included the additional resources and training required, difficulties surrounding assessment, need to link active learning to clear goals). The group reviewed methods to mitigate or offset these challenges (through, inter alia, the sharing of good practice;  compilation of data banks or a clearinghouses of projects, and possible funding sources to support such endeavors).  For the workshop participants the challenges were clearly offset by benefits of active learning – simulation and engagement of students; the ability to approach subject from a new angle; the ability to embed deeper understanding of an issue experiential or  ‘hands-on’ activities.  The formal proceedings were concluded, but informal discussion, facilitated by food and drink, continued at a near by hostelry.

Photo: Elena Gorianova (Sussex University)
Photo: Elena Gorianova (Sussex University)