Crafting tomorrow's sustainability leaders

Renowned conservation professor comes to UAlberta to talk about building sustainability into the classroom.


(Edmonton) Gary Machlis has seen a lot of environmental catastrophes in his 40-career as a conservation professor, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the lingering ecological aftermath of warfare to Hurricane Sandy and the earthquake in Haiti. Now the science adviser to the director of the U.S. National Park Service, Machlis knows the challenges the world is up against in ensuring a sustainable future. And this week, he is coming to the University of Alberta to talk about how to teach the next generation of researchers and leaders about those challenges.

He’ll have a receptive audience at the U of A, a sustainability leader that diverted more than 1,500 tonnes of organic waste away from landfills last year alone. The university also has an active and engaged community focused on sustainability issues.

But there is room for improvement, says Naomi Krogman, professor of environmental sociology and academic director of the U of A’s Office of Sustainability. “We can strengthen our campus commitment and dialogue on improving sustainability curriculum and learning opportunities for faculty around teaching sustainability.”

Krogman says faculty and students are showing tremendous interest in living sustainably. “It is a ripe time to examine how well we address sustainability in our teaching, programming and research opportunities for students.” She wants to get faculty and teachers talking about innovative and effective approaches to integrate sustainability into the curriculum.

That's why the office is teaming up with organizers of the university's annual Festival of Teaching to bring Machlis to campus Feb. 5 and 6 to talk about the craft of building sustainability into the classroom.

Crafting critical thinkers

"Critical thinking is at the heart of what we are trying to teach,” says Machlis, “but there is some core content students need to learn in order to empower them to think critically.”

Machlis says that once students see a “deeper pattern of interconnectedness” in the world around them, they care more about sustainability and are able to think about it critically. He fires his students’ curiosity by helping them to understand how the world works, which parts are sustainable, and how. His students tackle such questions as, “What is the engineering and ecology of Nutella?”, “Where does white bread come from?” and, “What would happen to a toilet roll if there were no cardboard at the centre?” These questions may seem trivial at first blush, but Machlis argues the answers show students how sustainability is part of virtually every aspect of human existence.

“I take everyday experiences and show students how they are tied to a deeper pattern,” he says. “The more we expand it, the more students see the connections.”

Giving students a voice

Machlis considers teaching a craft and says teachers must continually work to hone their skills. They must be open to new ideas and be willing to try new things. Most important, Machlis says, they must accept that they may not get it right the first time. “In order to keep your teaching fresh you have to be willing to change how you teach. One technique I use is each year, I have my students vote the most boring reading assignment off the curriculum. That way I’m always changing the content and giving students a voice.”

Machlis says teachers must remind themselves to focus not on teaching a course but on helping students learn. Which means, for a teacher, the job of learning is never done.

Krogman believes Machlis’s talk will inspire the U of A’s teachers to take their teaching excellence that extra bit further. “Machlis’s presentation can stimulate the kind of cross-fertilization across disciplines, academia and civil society, and borders, that students are asking for.”

Machlis is pleased to be coming to a festival of teaching and says teaching should be celebrated. “It’s not a symposium of teaching or a critique of teaching, but a festival of teaching. It is a wonderful craft in which to be involved.”

Gary Machlis presents The Craft of Teaching Sustainability Feb. 5 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA) 2-190 and The Craft of Teaching Local Sustainability Feb. 6 at 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Augustana Campus Forum, Dr. Roger Epp Conference Room.