November 23, 2011
Two longtime Nelson Institute faculty members retired in June. Cal DeWitt and Pete Nowak have been known for their devotion to teaching and to the Wisconsin Idea. We asked each of them to reflect on their careers at UW-Madison; following are excerpts from those conversations.
Cal DeWitt has always said his students keep him young, and his courses have been some of the most popular in the Nelson Institute and UW-Madison. After more than 41 years of teaching, DeWitt has retired and been granted emeritus status.
Since his teaching career at UW-Madison began in 1970, DeWitt has received numerous citations and awards, including the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1995. Students often refer to him as a friend and mentor, and his weekly "coffee sessions" - informal, free-flowing discussions among students and faculty - have also gained a devoted following.
DeWitt urges students to question everything. His innovative "spiral approach" to teaching focuses on interactivity, providing his students with a well-rounded world view.
Throughout his career, DeWitt has gone out of his way to give his students a topnotch education and rewarding college experience. His most popular course has been Environment Science. More than 3,000 students have taken the course.
I became acquainted with UW-Madison and the Nelson Institute during my sabbatical from Michigan in 1970. I participated in the first Earth Day here and saw the institute form. It was clear that people wanted me to come to UW, and they created a position for me.
The institute was formed thanks to a mandate given by Chancellor Edwin Young to address the fragmentation of disciplines across campus. The committee decided to pick a theme that would be integrative across all disciplines, and they chose the environment.
When I began to teach Environmental Studies 126, I had the opportunity to broaden my work to include many other disciplines. Every year I try to learn as much as I did in my most intense years of graduate study. What has come from that is a worldview that I now teach in my class. It's made me able to cover issues in such a way that the students see more of the integration than they do the specific components.
I'm very hopeful for the future. The good thing to do to re-establish hope is to get away from the things that are apparently hopeless. This is one of the reasons I like to bring my students into the field for three hours every week. The world is really beautiful, and as you get into the natural world, hope springs anew.
The least dramatic things in the world are the most beautiful and the most inspiring: the way the clouds form, the way currents work, the way the atmosphere mediates between solar radiation and life on Earth. Those are all beautiful things.
My major objective in teaching is to make sure my students understand the beauty of the world. What you discover is that built into us is a desire to live in harmony with the integrity of the biosphere, such as we can learn to recognize it. Out of that you can develop a tenacious approach to solving problems.
I've been holding coffee sessions since 1973. They give every student the opportunity to discuss with each other and with me any issues. I notice a change in my students over the first few weeks in terms of how they work and how they interact. They mature very quickly in an environment of mutual support, aspiring to do great things in the world.
I could not have done what I've been able to do without being at the UW, and it is because of the Wisconsin Idea, an idea that takes the boundaries of the university to be the boundaries of the state, and by extension to the entire biosphere and beyond.
Once when I was listening to National Public Radio, there was an interview with a woman talking about deforestation, watersheds and the countries contributing to severe flooding in Bangladesh. She had a remarkable worldview and I thought, "She sounds like one of my students." It turned out she was. That's the kind of student I try to produce. I haven't had any students who resisted developing a broad worldview.
I see in every student a tremendous power to contribute toward the development of a wholesome society. What you discover is that if you treat people that way, they are likely to do great things with their lives. I know they can do it and they begin to believe that they can.
I'm trying to help them become the people they want to be and trying to help them see that they can be someone far greater and far more influential than they think they are.
Pete Nowak, a faculty member since 1985 and a Nelson affiliate since 2001, has retired. Nowak has been a committed practitioner of the Wisconsin Idea, and he was instrumental in the founding of a number of projects that reflect that commitment, including the Wisconsin Buffer Initiative, which developed recommendations on using riparian buffers to address agricultural non-point pollution. He also helped establish the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, the Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference and other institute outreach activities. Nowak has been an active member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society and has spoken around the country to challenge researchers and practitioners to best serve farmers, consumers and the land.
As a young assistant professor at Iowa State, I was thrown into an interdisciplinary setting. So when I came to Madison, I already had an interdisciplinary bias. I was pulled into the Nelson Institute by its students.
Looking at the interface between agriculture and the environment has been my area of specialization throughout my career. It's such a dynamic area, there's so much diversity in both spheres.
Wisconsin is a classic case. Wisconsin has everything: tremendous agricultural diversity in a very diverse biophysical setting, from the driftless area to the red clays to the silt loams and the northern forest, it's all here. Suddenly I was a kid in a room full of toys. When I heard about the Wisconsin Idea, I thought, "Wow, that's where I want to be."
The Wisconsin Buffer Initiative (WBI) was a three-year collaborative process of tremendous range. Everyone from the Environmental Defense Fund to the Farm Bureau to the Corn Growers Association was involved, from some of the most liberal environmental groups to some of the most conservative agriculture groups. They were all sitting at the table; I'd love to see that happen more often.
I was appointed chair of the WBI and worked hard to bring all sides to the table. I spent a lot of time trying to understand where the fault lines were. I identified the gaps and then began to apply funding to conduct the research necessary to address the issues.
You'd be surprised how much you get when you go out to the citizens and say, "Tell me what you think. I'm here to listen, to understand your viewpoint, your perspective on the issue."
State law has now been revised largely in accord with the recommendations that came from the WBI, for example, how we manage phosphorus. I'm not aware of any other state that is as advanced as we are now.
When I first came here, Wisconsin was viewed nationally in the area of resource management. I've seen that deteriorate over the last 15 years of my career, but we're trying to push back.
For example, Wisconsin's becoming a national leader in terms of water quality. The WBI is a case where the best available science went into the development of a policy based on consensus among diverse parties that helped form and direct it. It was civic science at its best.
When I look at what's happening in other parts of the country, they're doing the same thing they've been doing for 50 years. Here in Wisconsin, we're trying something different.
The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) would be another example of bringing people together to examine a controversial topic that has a number of implications for the state.
The linchpin was the down-scaled climate models (produced by scientists in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research). The idea behind WICCI is that government officials, managers and other decision makers would do something if we could show them data at a scale they could use.
Using the capacity of the Nelson Institute to address these problems is what outreach is all about. You'll never be out of a job as long as we continue to have environmental problems, and we're going to have a lot of them.