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Innovative SPEA class practices what it teaches: reducing the carbon footprint

Indiana University students and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service professionals are learning together this semester in an IU course on conservation and global climate change. And, through the use of innovative technology, they are doing so in a way that doesn't contribute to climate change.

Fish and Wildlife Service employee Tom Simon attends Vicky Meretsky's class on climate change.

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The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs course meets on the IU campus in Bloomington. Dozens of Fish and Wildlife Service personnel from eight states participate from their homes or offices, linked to the classroom by a high-quality telephone connection and desktop sharing computer software.

For the government agency, it's an opportunity to provide its employees with high-quality professional development on an important topic, at little cost and with a small carbon footprint -- no travel to a central training site, no overnight hotel stays and little time away from work.

"This is a training opportunity for them as well as a learning opportunity for our students," said SPEA Associate Professor Vicky Meretsky, who is teaching the class with SPEA Professor J.C. Randolph. "This approach is ready for prime time; we just seem to be the first people using it in a widely leveraged environment."

Thirty-six IU students, most of them graduate students, attend the weekly class in a distance-learning classroom at the IU Radio and Television Building. A comparable number of staff from the Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region -- Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin -- dial in and log on for every class. Dozens more Fish and Wildlife Service employees join in when the lecture topic interests them or relates to their work.

Meretsky class

Vicky Meretsky

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Teresa Woods, special assistant to the midwest regional director, approached Meretsky last spring about whether IU could offer a carbon-neutral series of lectures on climate change for the agency. Meretsky worked out details with IU distance-learning staff and, with Randolph, lined up speakers. The course came together quickly.

"There were a couple of minor technical glitches, but our distance-learning people are some of the finest support staff I've ever had the pleasure to work with," Meretsky said.

Leading national experts in various aspects of climate change science and policy make up the list of weekly lecturers. They include professors at eight universities and officials from such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The speakers use PowerPoint slides that are viewed on screens in the IU classroom and, simultaneously, on the computers of Fish and Wildlife Service participants. A "chat" function with the software allows viewers at remote locations to ask questions during the lectures. They can also speak via a dedicated telephone line, which is paid for by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tom Simon, a fish and wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Bloomington, said he values the chance to learn about a broad range of issues related to climate change through in-depth presentations by experts. He also enjoys the interaction with IU students and faculty.

"Vicky has brought together all of the experts, the top people in their fields, and they're giving us presentations on their research," he said. "How can you ask for anything more than that?"

Although Simon attends class in person, he said his colleagues who take part by phone and computer are enjoying the experience. And he said learning about climate change is essential for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for protecting endangered species and managing refuges and other special areas, many of which are vulnerable to rising sea levels, hotter and dryer summers and other anticipated effects of climate change.

"Things are going to change, and we have to be prepared to evaluate how things are changing," he said.

Most weeks, the speakers are hundreds of miles from Bloomington. Last week, however, lecturer Ken Richards was in the classroom. Richards, a SPEA associate professor and an expert on energy policy and economics, took students through his analysis of the three climate-change bills that have been considered in the U.S. Senate -- pausing often to take questions from IU students in the room and Fish and Wildlife Service employees on speaker phone.

After a lecture and discussion that last up to 90 minutes, the lecturer will typically sign off. Then there's class discussion of the reading assignments for the week.

For the Fish and Wildlife Service, the class allows employees to take part in an essential conversation about climate change and its causes and impacts, said Dan Ashe, science adviser to USFWS Director H. Dale Hall. It also helps the agency experiment with a new approach to delivering training to start preparing the way for the workforce of the future, which will expect more intensive use of distance-learning and conferencing technology, he said.

"If we're going to meet the challenge of climate change and reduce our carbon footprint as an organization, it's critical that the service increasingly consider and start using these technologies," Ashe said. "It's an important part of breaking new ground for us, and we appreciate Indiana University's support."

IU students also benefit from learning to use the technology and from extensive classroom contact with Fish and Wildlife Service professionals. IU faculty members plan to produce an article about the class experience and have given poster presentations about it at national conferences. And the Fish and Wildlife Service has offered to provide comments on final papers that IU students produce for the class, and possibly to consider them to inclusion in a peer-reviewed agency publication.

Meretsky said almost all the experts she contacted were willing to present lectures to the class, thanks in part to the convenience of being able to speak from their own homes or offices. She thinks they also are motivated by the urgency of addressing climate change.

"An hour and a half of their time is so much less than everyone else is asking," she said. "And we're hitting so many people with it. Apparently it is worth the investment."