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Crash course in eco-literacy

Eco-literacy, like numeracy and literacy, is the idea that we should all have a basic fluency in ecological ideas. We should have a sense of the ecological in personal and social life.

how do the energy and materials we use connect to the
ecosysems around us?

With each passing year, I hoped that my university students would turn up with more ecological literacy. After all, isn’t sustainability being introduced in elementary and high school curricula? The answer is surprisingly, not that much. Few of my college and even graduate level design students, whether in architecture or product design, had eco-literacy. I found I was often in “catch up” mode. Here’s how I approach it using my book, The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

Eco-literacy has two dimensions (at least) with one being based on scientific and systems knowledge. The other dimension is more spiritual and psychological.

In the book  I profile the science/systems side of ecoliteracy in part two, with short, heavily illustrated chapters on “design and the ecosphere.” (for a further glimpse inside, see “inside the book“). I describe how designers can relate to the science behind unsustainability — speed, scale and location of resource use–and the science behind nature’s ultimate sustainability–eco-structures and functions and their resilience.

a diagram from The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, showing the makeup of the ecosphere

In my teaching guide for the book (download it free here) there’s a range of design briefs and exercises that help students digest the ideas in real terms. For example one exercise asks students to research answers to a bioregional quiz that deepens their knowledge of their ecological surroundings. Other exercises asks students to examine how materials are “invisible.” Students research and then find ways to visualize the normally invisible chemical or material footprint of a typical artifact found in their discipline (e.g. a shirt, tool, structure or landscape).

a diagram from The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, showing what we take out and put in to each component of the ecosphere

The book deals with the second dimension of eco-literacy in part four, in a chapter on nature and culture. The theme here includes how nature is woven into culture but also how nature is woven into our psychological makeup and serves as a core element of mental health.

The teaching guide offers a set of exercises in which students attempt to forge a personal, even mystical, connection to nature through some of the practices of deep ecology. The aim with these exercises is to recognize that design might separate us from nature but that we can take experiential steps to rebuild our own connection with nature in order to better use design as a process for helping others reconnect to nature.

So if you have to offer a crash course on eco-literacy use part 2 of the Designer’s Atlas and the chapter on Nature as Culture from part 4. Then choose a few of the exercises and briefs from the teaching guide and you’re on your way.

Have you ever had to give an eco-literacy carsh course? What was the biggest challenge? Share in the comments.

If you find these Thursday posts useful, please pass them on through email, facebook, twitter and other channels.

Also, I’m currently looking for examples of successful “live projects” or “design interventions” that you’ve seen written up, either online or in print–your own or other peoples’. Email me or leave a note in the comments.


UPDATE 25 May 2013

Aha…I just picked up on this NYT article that explains:

“Educators unveiled new guidelines on Tuesday that call for sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States — including, for the first time, a recommendation that climate change be taught as early as middle school.”

Further explanation…”States are not required to adopt them, but 26 states have committed to seriously considering the guidelines.” Seriously? Just Considering?

Crash courses in eco-literacy at the college level destined to continue!


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