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General Education helps students learn to make real-world connections

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Professor Ben Abbott and students collect water samples at the Spanish Fork River on February 7, 2018. Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

To broaden students' knowledge and understanding of the world, Brigham Young University’s General Education program offers students 486 courses to choose from. This diverse selection of classes provides something for everyone. Climate Change: Science and Solutions (PWS 180) emulates how every general education class cultivates unique and critical learning experiences.

Ben Abbott, Ph.D., takes a different teaching approach to his new general education class PWS 180. The course framework is structured to empower students to face a single, global problem. Abbott draws on science, policy and spirituality to explore causes, consequences and solutions to anthropogenic climate change.

“This class focuses on both the science and the solution,” Abbott said. “Climate change is a defining issue that affects all life on Earth, but it is a very complex and political problem that connects with every aspect of our personal lives. Through this class, my goal is to outline the scope and causes of climate change, and then explore the many creative and exciting solutions, many of which are already ongoing.”

Rather than use a traditional textbook, Abbott draws on peer-reviewed articles, video lectures and audio interviews with researchers and other climate change specialists. As students interact with multiple perspectives and interpretations, they learn to evaluate claims and become independent learners.

“By mid-semester, the students are finding their own high-quality sources and synthesizing this information into a proposal to solve climate change,” Abbott said. “It is inspiring to see the students learn from church leaders, artists, writers, scholars and Indigenous perspectives.”

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Professor Ben Abbott and students collect water samples at the Spanish Fork River on February 7, 2018. Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

The course centers around five themes to help students expand their understanding and perspectives to empower themselves to face the environmental and spiritual issues of climate change. Because the class is problem-oriented, each theme necessarily integrates knowledge from multiple fields of study, such as physics, behavioral psychology, economics and marketing, to provide relevant connections and insights to climate change.

“Building on the students’ own academic and cultural backgrounds, the course themes seek to spark relevant connections across fields to understand climate and society,” Abbott said.

The five themes of the course are:
1. “How do we know and why does it matter?” Students learn the scientific method and general critical thinking to interpret scientific articles and media coverage.
2. “What controlled climate in the past?” Students study the influence of physics and ecology on the Earth’s climate since creation.
3. “How do humans influence climate?” Students investigate what human actions alter climate and how.
4. “What are the consequences for humans and ecosystems?” Students explore how climate change and associated pollution harm human health, societal function, cultural identity and spiritual wellbeing.
5. “What can we do about it?” Students evaluate multiple proposals, integrating social science with physical science and philosophy, to create a plan to solve climate change.

Abbott provides opportunities for students to lead class discussions by asking questions on the course topic and sharing their opinions. After students share their thoughts, Abbott elaborates or asks additional questions.

“I try to approach each class period and each theme by asking, what do students need to know to understand and address this problem,” Abbott said. “As we discuss really hard questions, students discover for themselves that they can do to help create change. I encourage students to ask questions that I do not know the answers to. This is when I find students dig in and start expressing themselves, even if they express an opinion that they later abandon.”

Even though this is the first semester that PWS 180 is being taught, 70 students are enrolled from 40 different majors. The class is entirely remote and open to the public.

“The high initial enrollment shows that students want to make a difference,” Abbott said. “I didn’t attend BYU, but I have learned that the defining characteristic of a BYU student is that they want to make the world a better place. That puts the pressure on me to provide accurate information about how we can turn climate change around.”

Not every general education class is structured like PWS 180, but all provide students learning opportunities to make real-world connections and empower them to make a difference.

“Those of us at BYU should lead the way and pave this pathway forward to prepare the Earth for the Savior and keep the covenants we make as Church members,” Abbott said.