Geography professor Nigel Roulet


Innovative plan for new school generates "tremendous response"

DANIEL McCABE | Anybody wondering why the world might need something like the new McGill School of Environment could consider what took place in Japan this week.

The countries of the world assembled in Kyoto to try to hammer out an agreement on global warming. No easy task.

For one thing, some politicians and scientists argued that global warming isn't really anything to worry about. While most scientists accept that global warming is a real concern, their predictions of its potential consequences are less than certain.

The treaty discussed at Kyoto would place strict limits on the amounts of carbon dioxide and other environmentally harmful gases countries would be allowed to produce. Several industrialized nations sought to have the limits relaxed  arguing they would protect their forests and grow more trees instead, thereby neutralizing some of the effects of the gases. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club thought that kind of reasoning was self-serving in the extreme  trees help, but the production of greenhouse gases has to stop. Developing countries, meanwhile, are reluctant to make any promises that might get in the way of their economic growth. The environment might be important, they say, but so is feeding their people.

Obviously, the debate over environmental questions tends to be as messy as your typical oilspill. When it comes to the environment, there are no simple answers and approaching an issue from a single vantage point rarely works. Enter McGill.

The new School of Environment's mission is to train students to become analytical problem solvers able to recognize the many dimensions of an environmental issue. It's an ambitious task. To help realize it, the school is using an innovative approach to environmental education that is unique in Canada  and making full use of the resources of three separate faculties and both of McGill's campuses.

The school officially opens next September. Students will be able to do either a BA or a BSc in environment. A minor program and a 30-credit diploma program (for students who've already completed a bachelor's degree but who want to acquire some environmental expertise) will also be offered.

"We're all trying to figure out our role on the planet  how we fit into the scheme of things and how our world affects us in turn," says Dean of Science Alan Shaver. "Students aren't just interested in one small piece of the puzzle. They really want to see how everything fits together."

Geography professor Nigel Roulet, head of the tri-faculty executive committee that has been at work preparing the school for its debut, says that most environmental programs are too limited in their scope. They tend to be connected to single departments or faculties and they tend to examine the environment through a specific prism.

"York and Waterloo have good programs, but they're very much focused on the social sciences. What we're building here is something much more exciting."

The idea of a school of environment first cropped up four years ago when a group of professors began suggesting that McGill's offerings on the environment needed greater coordination.

Last December, the deans from the faculties of agricultural and environmental sciences, arts and science jointly hosted a two-day workshop devoted to the notion of a school of environment and over 100 professors and students took part in the free-ranging discussions.

"That created a real sense of momentum, an excitement about the idea," says Roulet, the director of the Centre for Climate and Global Change Research. "People really began seeing this as something that we could do.

"At McGill, we have a very solid foundation for the school  there are talented people working in the environmental area in many different disciplines." The school will draw these people together and combine their varied expertise in interesting new ways.

Whether students in the school are working on arts or science degrees, they will all have to pass a series of core courses that will constitute about a third of the requirements for their degrees. Each student will begin by taking some core courses. Roulet says, "We'll try to challenge students to begin to think intelligently about many facets to an environmental issue."

One core course might be the global environment  an examination of the biosphere, the hydrosphere and how human actions have affected the environment. Another could focus on society and development  studying the economic, anthropological and political dimensions of humanity's interaction with the environment.

Roulet says that in each science course, a social scientist will visit the class to talk about the cultural or philosophical aspects of the subject. In arts courses, a natural scientist will spend some time talking about the science behind the politics or sociology of the topics they've been discussing.

"To really tackle environmental issues meaningfully, I think you need an integrated and interdisciplinary approach," says Roulet. "The downside is that if you take it too far, it might produce graduates who are jacks of all trades, but who haven't mastered any specialties at all."

That's why the school's students, once they've mastered several core courses, will move into more specialized terrain. They won't be moving into departments, though. They will select from a series of specially created "domains."

"The domains are not traditional majors in the traditional disciplines. Each domain is interdisciplinary and examines an aspect of the environment. Each involves professors from at least two different departments and most involve many departments and participation from all three faculties," explains Roulet.

Some of the proposed domains include environment and development, aquatic systems, natural resource management, environment and resource economics, and food systems and environment.

After doing the 12 courses in their respective domains, students will take two final core courses. These will encourage students to analyze real-world environmental problems, sometimes in teams with students from other domains.

The school will use McGill resources like Mont St. Hilaire and the Morgan Arboretum as living laboratories. In addition, the MSE is developing field study programs enabling students to do a term in another part of the world. The idea is to give students a full sense of how the environment is seen outside Canada. Field programs are being set up in Panama and Africa. Thailand is another possibility.

Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard says the interdisciplinary and international approach the MSE is taking is "absolutely the way to go." She adds that her faculty is close to appointing a new aboriginal scholar with expertise in "the traditional knowledge found in aboriginal communities addressing environmental issues."

Buszard is excited about her faculty's closer working relationship with the downtown campus. "That's definitely an intellectual plus for us. It's too easy to be isolated as a result of the geographical separation of our campuses. We're breaking down some of the barriers."

Students will be able to take courses at both campuses and they'll have access to the professors at each location through McGill's videoconferencing facilities.

Dean of Arts Carman Miller says he expects more faculties to become involved in the MSE

"It was never our intention to exclude the other faculties. We simply wanted to launch the school and our three faculties were ready to go. We want to reach out and recruit others. Certainly when you think of engineering, religious studies, medicine and law, it's not difficult to imagine the contributions they could make as we think about the environment."

The school recently received approval from the Academic Planning and Priorities Committee and will soon go before Senate. The MSE has been advertising for a director and Roulet says the notices have attracted some exciting candidates. "We'll be inviting some of the people we're most interested in to participate in a series of University-wide talks in the spring." The school will also be hiring a scholar in environmental ethics in a cross-appointment with the Faculty of Religious Studies.

Professors involved with the MSE have a clear sense that they're building something special. "Every time we talk about the school, there is a tremendous response," says Shaver. "Students' faces light up when they hear about this. I'm really looking forward to September."