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Class Crosses Continents to Prepare Consultants

Graduate students from universities on three continents addressed environmental issues facing people on every continent including food insecurity, energy production, and natural disasters. All areas were investigated with an eye for leveraging emerging technologies to tackle the life-defining challenges. Registration for the Fall 2021 graduate-level course opens in March.

The course is taught by professors from three universities. ESF's Dr. David Sonnenfeld, Professor of Environmental Studies, also holds adjunct status at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Using this connection - and building on an earlier relationship with academic leaders at Van Lang University, a private university in Vietnam - Sonnenfeld co-developed EST 690, "International Environmental Policy Consultancy," a graduate-level course, open to students at all three institutions, that prepares participants in consultancy skills and the integration and application of scientific knowledge in the public sphere.

The course has been offered since 2013. Sonnenfeld's goal, he said, is to produce "scientifically strong professionals who are also skilled consultants." Since its onset, the faculty team has developed an enduring relationship with partners within the United Nations system. In fall 2020, co-taught with Professor Lotsmart Fonjong, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies, the course brought together nearly 40 students who consulted with clients at the Science, Technology & Innovation Policy Section, Division on Technology and Logistics, of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); and the Policy Analysis Branch, Division for Sustainable Development Goals, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).

The student-consultants divided into multiple teams. Each team included students from across the disciplines who proposed, and then developed, a "science-policy brief" on a related emerging technology of their choosing. In previous years, instructors have invoked a hybrid methodology: some work was done in a large group with students meeting virtually; other work was done face-to-face at each university with results shared in joint virtual sessions. Because of the global pandemic, the 2020 class was completely virtual.

"COVID pushed us fully online this year," said Sonnenfeld. "It's difficult to say that we lost any momentum, though. In fact, it seems that, in some ways, at least, our communication and efforts to collaborate were enhanced with the move to fully online. The move meant our students and clients can be anywhere. In addition, we found a certain synergy and adopted an 'always learning' approach that was empowering."

The course culminates with the preparation of a series of science-policy briefs, and a consolidated consultancy report. The 2020 report was entitled, "Pathways for Harmonious Social-Ecological System Interactions." Aimed at a broad, international policymaking audience, the report features eight Science-Policy Briefs:

  • "Biomimicry to Tackle Air Pollution in Urban Areas"
  • "Robotics for Monitoring Marine Ecosystems"
  • Chemical Technology for the Future of Plastic Recycling"
  • "5G in Smart Irrigation: Exploring Pathways for Implementations"
  • "Saltwater Greenhouses"
  • "Ablative Pyrolysis for Sustainable Energy Production"
  • "Citizen Science and Hydrological Monitoring"
  • "Virtual Reality to Strengthen Natural Disaster Management"

Also included is "The Role of Digital Technology: An Indonesian Case Study."

"Connecting ESF students to students at other institutions and leaders at the United Nations is an opportunity to expand their horizons, experience other cultures, and consider different perspectives," said Sonnenfeld. "In addition, in today's reality, it's not unusual for employees to work on international topics and to work with employees around the world. This course helps people become subject matter experts and strengthens interpersonal skills."