New ESPP course promotes interdisciplinary research, teamwork

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 | Author:

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When ESPP started revising the doctoral specialization last year, faculty and students asked for a course that would teach core skills for interdisciplinary environmental policy work. In response, ESPP has created ESP 891 (soon to be ESP 800): Introduction to Environmental Science and Policy.

Team taught by Laura Schmitt Olabisi (Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies, ESPP) and Louie Rivers (Criminal Justice, ESPP), ESP 891 is designed for students to learn basic interdisciplinary research concepts as well as related research methods and analytical techniques.

“I wish there had been a course like this when I was a graduate student,” said Schmitt Olabisi. “We [usually] don’t train students to work in teams or on policy research. We just expect them to do it. It’s great that ESPP is recognizing this.”

To help teach the class, Schmitt Olabisi and Rivers have called on their network of colleagues. Each class has a different focus and features one or more faculty from a specific project. The speakers receive a set of questions, written by the students on the first day of class, to guide their presentation.

“Recently, we had a philosopher come in and discuss animal welfare,” said student Abigail Lynch (Fisheries and Wildlife and ESPP). As someone who primarily studies resource management of wild animals, Lynch said that the class’s discussion on farm animal welfare gave her a different perspective on her own work.

“There’s really a lot of interesting environmental research at MSU that graduate students might not be aware of,” said Schmitt Olabisi. While developing an awareness of environmental research is important, Schmitt Olabisi and Rivers agree that the course is “less about the content and more about the process of working in teams.”

The midterm and final project assignments reflect this teamwork goal. For the midterm, the class was divided into two teams and then asked to write a policy report to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Students had to communicate with decision makers through a summary of peer-reviewed science and policy suggestions.

“[In my group] we all came from different disciplines and backgrounds,” said student Ryan Klataske (Anthropology). “We discussed about what kind of skills we brought to this project, what kind of things we wouldn’t be good at…[and] essentially came to a consensus on how the project would be divided up. This was a new experience for all of us that turned out to be rewarding. We were pretty impressed that we were able to pull together so much information.”

The final project will also use teams: this time, to write a grant proposal. Schmitt Olabisi and Rivers have asked experienced MSU grant writers and reviewers to host a question and answer session to discuss the grants the students will write.

This hands-on learning and practical experience is an important part of the course.

“I think it’s important to learn how to work in teams,” said Klataske. “So many environmental problems are complex and require problem solving from multiple angles, disciplines and perspectives. This class helps develop that.”

In April, the class plans to visit the state capitol and meet with political staff and non-governmental organization lobbyists to better understand the policy process. “A lot of [the students], myself included, are trained in science,” said Schmitt Olabisi. “We don’t understand how policy is made.”

Although most of the students in ESP 891 consider themselves scientists, the enrollment is open to students from all areas of academia, within and outside ESPP. This semester there are two students from non-science fields, which adds a great diversity to the class, said Schmitt Olabisi. “[Those students] are always giving us a non-science perspective. They help us understand what might be confusing” about our work.

Even after the course ends, Lynch said, it will have long-term effects. “[The course] creates an interdisciplinary network. It’s a small class, so we can all use each other as resources in the future.”

Klatske agreed. “I’m interested in interactions between people and the environment… in social and cultural aspects of conservation,” he said. “This class is really useful because conservation efforts always involve multiple stakeholders and people from different groups, backgrounds and with different interests. [It] helps me prepare for a career where collaboration and communication is essential.”

Liz Pacheco (, News Writer for Environmental Science and Policy Program

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