This spring, Professor Marta Vicarelli of the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics connected students in her graduate-level Environmental Policy course with experts working on innovative sustainability efforts around the world—without ever leaving the classroom.
Vicarelli did so with the help of a Ken Feinberg Course Development Grant. The grant, made possible by a gift from UMass Amherst alumnus Ken Feinberg (’67, ’02H), included access to the Feinberg Innovation Space, a new classroom facility with cutting-edge audio and video capabilities. The grant allowed Vicarelli to bring speakers from organizations including the United Nations, the European Union, the Nature Conservancy, and the Philippine government to meet with her students via teleconference. She was also able to record the talks so they can be made available to others outside the class. (Professors Brenda Bushouse of SPP and the Department of Political Science and Martha Fuentes-Bautista of SPP and the Department of Communication also received Feinberg grants this year.)
The course considered contemporary environmental policy issues, with a particular focus on their economic dimensions. The international experts added a crucial comparative element, allowing students to learn about innovative sustainable development initiatives happening outside the US, in countries that represent “the frontier of innovation in policy,” Vicarelli said.
Vicarelli invited guest speakers with deep practical experience in environmental policy. The list included Karen Sudmeier, senior advisor with the United Nations Environmental Program in Geneva; Ali Raza Rizvi, head of the Global Program on Ecosystem Based Adaptation at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Washington; Sergio Castellari, national expert on climate change and disaster risk reduction at the European Environmental Agency in Copenhagen; Irina Pavlova, a project officer at UNESCO headquarters in Paris; Maria Lourdes Ferrer, director of policy and planning services with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources; Kerstin Pfliegner, director of the Nature Conservancy’s German office; and Michael Beck, a professor of marine sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
“They are all dealing with the fundamental construction of policy, right now,” Vicarelli said of the speakers. Rizvi, for example, spoke about how ecosystem conservation strategies can help reduce the effects of climate change. Pavlova, of UNESCO, talked about how cultural heritage is threatened by environmental hazards and how her organization promotes sustainable risk management. Ferrer spoke about the extensive climate adaptation efforts currently undertaken by the Philippine government, a country with one of the highest levels of vulnerability to global risk and natural hazards. Pfleigner and Beck described the design of an innovative insurance contract, developed by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with leading reinsurance company MunichRe; the purpose of this revolutionary financial instrument is to provide insurance against coastal extreme events while financing the conservation of coral reefs.
For Erin Wnorowski, a graduate student in sustainability science, the interdisciplinary focus and the array of international speakers made the class especially informative and relevant. “The talks broadened my horizons about what’s happening across the globe around environmental policy and action,” she said. “The speakers reinforced concepts that we learned in class and showed what grappling with policies and economic methods look like in the field, including the impact on funding, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.”
“The general issues the speakers discussed had been presented in our assigned readings prior to their talks: environmental and socioeconomic impacts, policy, climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies,” said PJ Niver, a School of Public Policy graduate student. “While reading, however, I am often in ‘student mode’ and interact with the material as concepts, formulas, and strategies to be accumulated and digested for understanding. Seeing, hearing, and interacting with the actual people who are making a positive difference in the world provided insight into the practical mindset needed to bridge contemplation and application. It humanized the information and its application.”
“I really wanted the students to explore innovative sustainable development solutions in both the public and private sectors,” Vicarelli said. “Thanks to our guest speakers, students learned about paths adopted by other countries toward the greening of their economies, without compromising economic growth. Lectures and guest speakers have also allowed students to examine environmental policy in emerging markets, with a special focus on Asia, and compare it to what’s happening in the US.
“This a moment in the US where, from a policy perspective, things are not moving very fast. But we don’t want our student to take that as the reference point,” Vicarelli continued. “We want students to see what’s happening elsewhere and how fast things can move. Students were very interested in learning about the vast investments in renewable energy in China and the unprecedented expansion of the Chinese electric vehicle market. I hope this course opens their horizons.”
The course also provided students with invaluable networking and professional development opportunities. “The speakers are very eager to share with the students, who are their future colleagues,” Vicarelli said. “The younger generation understands that this is the future. Today’s students really want to do something. They want to take action and incorporate sustainability into their work. And with this class they are learning that they can do well by doing good.”
Top photo: Marta Vicarelli (right) and students. Bottom photo: Sergio Castellari of the European Environmental Agency speaks to students from Copenhagen. Photos by Dan Desrochers
About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.
— Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy