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In the spotlight: Rob Beattie helps students reach their full potential

February 6, 2013

Rob Beattie, associate director of the Nelson Institute’s Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE) and academic coordinator and instructor for the Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP), helps students become interdisciplinary experts.

As one of the first students to complete the undergraduate certificate in environmental studies at UW-Madison, Beattie (‘81) went on to become director of the environmental studies program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He returned to the Nelson Institute in 2006 and has placed an emphasis on encouraging students to learn outside of their disciplines and develop professional communication skills.

“CHANGE and CESP tap in to my fundamental interest of helping students become better environmental citizens and decision makers,” Beattie says. “The Nelson Institute is one of the only places that encourages its students to engage such a broad diversity of perspectives on environmental studies.”

What is the focus of your work and what drew you to this field?

Beattie: I am interested in two related questions: How do we make environmental decisions in the face of conflict, and how do we train environmental professionals from different backgrounds and disciplines to work together to solve our most pressing environmental problems?

Rob Beattie teaching
Beattie leads a lecture in Environmental Studies
112: A Social Perspective, one of 
courses he teaches.

I worked as an environmental consultant for years before returning to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get my Ph.D. I noticed that people often shared certain environmental values, but conversations about environmental controversies are almost always structured in ways that emphasize disagreements and conflicts. That’s not to say there aren’t real and important environmental conflicts; there are. But if we really believe in the idea of democratic decision-making around the environment, we need to start with our shared values and build from there to better environmental solutions.

It turns out, for example, that paper mill workers, hunters, wilderness advocates, vacation home owners, Department of Natural Resources employees and mountain bike enthusiasts might all share a love of the outdoors. But they also have other concerns, and some sharp disagreements, that make it hard for them to even sit down at the same table to discuss environmental problems. Research suggests that public policy debates that acknowledge those shared values have a much better chance of leading to mutually agreeable outcomes than if we focus solely on our disagreements.

This idea of shared values also relates to my work on training graduate students to be interdisciplinary scholars. One of the biggest barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration is academic specialization.

Our Ph.D. students study for years to become specialists in particular areas of environmental scholarship. They get to a point where they stop reading research from environmental disciplines that are “unrelated” to their primary research. So you have a situation where atmospheric scientists seldom read about anthropology, environmental economists don’t talk to field ecologists, etc.

"Even within environmental
studies we often don’t
understand each other’s
work, and as academics
we tend to distrust things
we don’t understand.
CHANGE gives our
graduate students
important tools to
help them listen to, and
work with, other experts." 

The graduate certificate I help to run – the Certificate on Humans and the Global Environment, or CHANGE  – brings together students from a diverse set of disciplines, gives them a cohort experience where they all take the same set of classes, and builds the trust and communication skills they need to learn about one another’s disciplines in a safe setting.

It turns out that even within environmental studies we often don’t understand each other’s work, and as academics we tend to distrust things we don’t understand. CHANGE gives our graduate students some important tools to help them listen to, and work with, other experts. After all, we share the same goal – understanding and improving humans’ environmental interactions.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in your work?

The most surprising thing I’ve found is the profound difference between problem solvers and problem “pointer-outers” among academics working on the environment. There are many academics working on environmental issues whose primary interest is in accurately and thoroughly describing and explaining environmental issues. There are others whose primary goal is to fix environmental problems.

The dilemma in getting these groups to communicate effectively is that every “fix” one group proposes is based on a set of beliefs about the source of the “problem.” If one group believes the other’s fix is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem, this can lead to some pretty heated arguments.

For example, if the “problem” of global warming is too much carbon in the atmosphere, then reducing carbon emissions is the best solution, but if the “problem” is the political power of polluting industries, then maybe reducing that political power is the best solution.

Disagreements about how environmental problems get defined and discussed are fascinating to me.

What drew you back to UW-Madison and the Nelson Institute?

I was an environmental studies certificate student here as an undergraduate many years ago – I was probably among the first 10 or so students to complete the certificate.

Rob Beattie and Nelson Institute graduate students
Beattie (front row, center) gathers with students and
staff from the the Nelson Institute Certificate on
Humans and the Global Environment (CHANGE). 

In 2006, Jonathan Patz, professor of environmental studies and population health sciences, and several other UW-Madison faculty were awarded a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, which funded graduate students who committed to work on interdisciplinary sustainability. I came back to help create the interdisciplinary training program for this, which eventually became CHANGE.

Later I was asked to work with a team of Nelson Institute staff to create the Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP), an undergraduate program that helps students link their passion for the environment with a commitment to community.  

What courses do you teach? Which is your favorite, and why?

On the undergraduate side, I teach the Community Environmental Scholars seminar, a section of Environmental Studies 402. Every semester, that course introduces CESP students to a structured way of thinking about and performing environmental community service. We also do lots of professional development – helping students tell their own stories (in resumes or interviews) about their environmental training. It’s really fun to see CESP students get more and more confident about their skills and experience as the semester goes on.

I also teach several communication courses in the CHANGE program (Environmental Studies 707 and 807), as well as the CHANGE capstone course, Environmental Studies 808.

Recently my favorite course has been the second semester CHANGE communication course (807), because that includes one of my favorite training exercises – what I call the Epistemological Journal Club. Students submit a copy of their favorite sustainability paper from their discipline, I pair the students up with someone from a very different discipline, and then they present to the class the paper from the other student’s discipline. They have to present the paper and answer questions about it as if they were the only expert in the room.

The exercise is designed to help everyone see the taken-for-granted assumptions that operate in every discipline, to understand that data in one discipline might be noise in another, and to learn how to see their own discipline through another perspective. CHANGE graduates regularly cite this as one of their favorite and most eye-opening activities.

Can you share a sample lecture title that you particularly enjoy teaching?

"The best reward is
hearing graduates of
the program tell me
how their experience
has improved their ability
to communicate with
colleagues and the public."

I will be teaching Environmental Studies 112: A Social Perspective in spring 2013, a 250-person introductory class. I am really looking forward to my lecture on environmental justice, because I think it encompasses some of the hardest, most interesting and most important issues that students of environmental studies ever face. The lecture is titled “Environmental justice: How clean is clean, what is fair and who gets to decide?”

What has been the most rewarding part of your work with the CHANGE program?

The best reward is hearing graduates of the program tell me how their experience in CHANGE has improved their ability to communicate with colleagues and the public. I usually hear these stories one or two years after the students complete the program – and they always seem surprised that their hard work on communication skills actually makes a difference!

Similarly, how about with the Community Environmental Scholars students?

In CESP, the most rewarding experience is definitely the undergraduates who thank us, usually long after the fact, for forcing them to practice networking. I think all of us recognize the importance of this skill, and also recognize that it creates a lot of anxiety (even the word networking gives some people hives).

We stress that we are just teaching CESP students to be able to talk about themselves and their accomplishments in a way that is simple, true and effective. It’s great to get that email from a student who explains how they got an interesting job, internship or other opportunity simply because they had practiced this.