To tackle environmental challenges, start with students

Arizona State University students and their sustainability float at the homecoming parade. (© Courtesy of ASU)

How do we live on this planet without exhausting the resources we need to survive?

Solving increasingly daunting planetary problems will require greater collaboration among researchers and practitioners on the ground to answer simple but invaluable questions: What is working? What isn’t? And how do we teach the next generation of scientists and practitioners?

A new partnership between Conservation International (CI) and Arizona State University (ASU) aims to answer these and other questions in forging a new approach to conservation and sustainable development. As part of the initiative, CI scientists will work as “professors of practice” alongside ASU professors, drawing in expertise from a broader mix of disciplines while filling the research-to-action gap.

Conservation International CEO Dr. M. Sanjayan and scientists with Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow. (© Courtesy of ASU)

The partnership — the first of its kind between a large public American university and a U.S.-based international conservation nonprofit — will target three goals, according to Daniela Raik, senior vice president and managing director of science at Conservation International: Train the next generation of conservation leaders, protect 1 million hectares of essential “natural capital” — the parts of nature that provide benefits to people — and transition 100 million food producers to sustainable production.

It’s no small task, but there’s no time to lose.

“By bringing scientists from Conservation International into the classroom, we are giving students the opportunity to learn firsthand from practitioners who are dealing with the real environmental and social challenges from around the world,” said Leah Gerber, professor and founding director of ASU’s Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. “If our conservation efforts and outcomes are going to match how rapidly the planet is changing,” she continued, “we need more than new institutional models — we have to link up world-class research with real-world decision-making.”

How to make that link, exactly? For one, start with today’s students — the next generation of conservationists.

“The goal of the ‘Conservation in Practice’ course is to grant ASU students the unique opportunity to gain knowledge directly from conservation science practitioners working on various projects around the world,” explains Amy Scoville-Weaver, partnership manager and teaching assistant for the course. Students are exposed to the challenges of “effective conservation” through lectures focused on the different expertise of each Professor of Practice, from measuring biodiversity in the field to understanding nature’s role in achieving global sustainable development. Critically, said Scoville-Weaver, students experience how Conservation International uses science to produce conservation outcomes that are best for the planet and society.


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For the Professors of Practice, the need to connect science and decision-making can’t be understated. But, like the distinct disciplines they practice, each professor has their own hope for what students will take away from this partnership. For Jorge Ahumada, senior wildlife conservation scientist at Conservation International, he wants students to recognize how crucial measuring progress is to the success of any project.

“While many conservation organizations and programs are filled with good intentions, it’s vital that we think about how we’re measuring success from the outset,” he said. “I ran that theme throughout my course because unfortunately, not a lot of conservation programs have good measures of success in place, in terms of monitoring progress and delivering information to decision makers. That’s a key piece of a successful conservation project.” 

In some cases, it was the students who left the professors with a newfound sense of hope. That is the case for David Hole, Conservation International’s senior director of global synthesis.

“The Earth is an extraordinarily resilient system — but we are testing the limits of that resilience like never before. So the opinions of the younger generations also matter like never before. The decisions they make as consumers and citizens, in their lifetimes, will determine if we stay within a ‘safe operating space,’ ” he said.

“Students understand the present time and its social media and technology landscapes far better than I do, so perhaps the future isn’t quite as daunting as it sometimes seems to me. I’m confident they’ll come up with the solutions we need.”

Bruno Vander Velde is Conservation International’s editorial director. 

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  1. Sarah Marcus says

    I think that students today understand more about climate change, social media and their impact on the world. This is an exciting partnership that should be highly beneficial to both Conservation International, ASU and the planet.

  2. Pingback: To tackle environmental challenges, start with students | Human Nature | Daily Green World

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