UCSF Sustainability Stories

Alanya den Boer, September 2016

UCSF Workshop Explores How to Integrate Environmental Sustainability & Health Issues into Coursework

Alanya den Boer, a masters student in Communication Science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is a visiting scholar and intern with UCSF’s Office of Sustainability.  Her specialization is health and society, focusing on communications and behavior science. Last May she had the opportunity to support a UCSF Curriculum Workshop, commissioned as part of the UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative (CNI).

CNI workshops were held at each of the University of California campuses; they focused on supporting and connecting faculty across campuses who have voluntarily chosen to infuse existing course curriculum across various disciplines with relevant climate and sustainability-related concepts. The UCSF CNI Workshop, held May 2016, was designed and led by Dr. Arianne Teherani, PhD Professor of Medicine and educational researcher in the Center for Faculty Educators and a Faculty Climate Action Champion and Dr. Sheri Weiser, Associate Professor of Medicine, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and School of Medicine. Twenty UCSF faculty members from the UCSF professional schools and graduate division attended the workshop focused on the impact of the climate on health and how to educate learners about this important content.

Below Alanya shares her thoughts and insights on the workshop.

I am an international master student (Communication Science, specialization Health and Society) from the Netherlands doing my internship at UCSF, and I was truly delighted and grateful to have the opportunity to help organize and attend this workshop. Human health is affected by the many social and physical determinants in our lives and climate change will impact them all. Climate change already impacts human health in direct as well as indirect ways and the health care sector has a vital role to play. The first step to be able to respond adequately to climate change and to be able to help mitigate its effects is education. Since climate change and sustainability are linked to almost every aspect in life, there are opportunities to integrate this issue in many different courses in order to give tomorrow’s students the right knowledge and skills they need. 

The Curriculum Workshop included both presentations as well as active brainstorm sessions. Talks by Chancellor Sam Hawgood, Drs. Linda Rudolph (Public Health Institute), Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Daniel Lowenstein, Sheri Weiser, Arianne Teherani, Matt St. Clair, UC Office of the President Director of Sustainability, and Gail Lee, UCSF Sustainability Director inspired the attendees to brainstorm, discuss, and share their ideas about how to integrate climate change and sustainability in six different courses:

  • Molecular Mechanisms of Human Diseases,
  • Introduction to Probability and Statistics,
  • Introduction to Sociocultural Theory, Bad Bugs: Perspectives on Antimicrobial Resistance,
  • Community Health Nursing, and
  • Foundations in General Dentistry.

The high level expertise and enthusiastic attendees empowered each other resulting in many different ideas, ranging from the need to integrate general and basic to very specific connections and subjects. Answers included the need to examine how changing environments impact infectious diseases and allergies, how to conduct uncertainty analysis to assess the relationship between climate change and health, how to lie or to tell the truth with statistics and how preventive medicine and promotional health can prevent illness as well as lead to waste reduction. Reducing waste by keeping people healthy is such a clear thought, but coming up with these kinds of insights required the groups to think differently. Another very clear comment was the fact that we have to realize that our health has to do with the basics: the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe. These are prerequisites for health and all affected by unsustainable practices and climate change.

This first brainstorm session was the start of a more in-depth discussion about what aspects of climate change and sustainability can be integrated in faculty’s own course(s) and how this can be done. Small balanced groups were asked to think about how they envisioned incorporating sustainability and climate change themes into their course(s), what specific objectives on climate change, sustainability and health they would implement in their course, and what instructional strategies for implementation of these objectives they considered. These questions lead to a range of different ideas and the forty minutes to share and discuss ideas was barely enough. The fact that answers were shared and people could give feedback to each other was enriching.

One of the discussions was about the importance of framing and re-orientating climate change in a positive light, meaning focusing on successful examples and initiatives. Other topics raised by participants were about the externalities of unsustainable practices, how to encourage students to think broadly about the environment and its consequences for health care delivery, the importance of advocacy in the curriculum, how sustainability education can be made actionable and the need to make the links between climate change and health explicitly. There are many studies about the links between climate change and health, but the fact that these pathways are often complex and studies are epidemiological asks for extra efforts to make these links explicit.

The workshop was closed with a vivid talk by Dr. Stan Glantz, who showed the similarities between the strategies used by the tobacco industry and by deniers of climate change and how higher education can advocate for climate change awareness and action. Scientists cannot always speak publicly about certain subjects, which is harmful now that the urgency is high and there is a vital role to play. Therefore, awareness and knowledge about these tactics and strategies is helpful when it is about advocacy and action. 

For me, this workshop gave new insights and knowledge and it felt empowering to have so many people thinking about this issue together. It was challenging to think about the links between climate change and health for courses and areas you don’t have expertise in. I think this was one of the strengths of this workshop and stimulated people to think out of the box. I am sure this workshop has given the right impulse to the faculty members to be able to start integrating climate change and sustainability into their course(s). It is their courses that will help prepare and stimulate future health professionals in a century where we as humans have the opportunity and the duty to make a change and to safeguard our health and that of future generations.