To Nancy E. Mathews, one reason a "bricks and mortar" education still matters, even in this time of online degrees, is community-based learning. That approach, she says, connects students more authentically to local, national, and global communities to work on pressing issues.
Ms. Mathews, who is 56, began a new job this month as dean of the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. She just left the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she served for the past four years as director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service. There she oversaw and broadened a vast community-based-learning curriculum. She hopes to do something similar at Vermont.
In community-based learning, also known as service learning, professors identify an issue for students to work on with a community partner, and integrate the real-life issue into classroom material.
At Wisconsin, students traveled to a local middle school, for instance, to teach low-income minority students about ecology and sustainability issues, using bird-watching as a draw. The undergraduates mentored and encouraged those young students to apply to college and to focus on STEM disciplines. In return, the college students learned conflict resolution, problem-solving, and how to work in interdisciplinary teams.
Society’s most pressing environmental challenges relate to humans’ interaction with the earth, says Ms. Mathews. That’s why issues such as climate change and diminishing resources cannot be resolved with science alone. They also require the humanities and social sciences.
Environmental studies prepares students to work in a collaborative, diverse, and interdisciplinary world, which Ms. Mathews says is "the way of the future."
The Rubenstein school houses 40 percent of Vermont’s service-learning courses. Their presence, and the opportunity to shape the global conversation about environment and sustainability, is what drew Ms. Mathews to the campus. And nearby Lake Champlain offers a fine laboratory to deal with such issues as water quality and the impact of climate change on forest ecosystems.
"They’ve got dynamic new leadership, they’ve got great faculty, who are already tackling some of the world’s most complex environmental issues," she says. "The focus on being interdisciplinary and the value of collaboration among all schools and colleges—that all really speaks to me."
Ms. Mathews, who has a Ph.D. in forest biology, has done extensive research on the behavior of brown-headed cowbirds and white-tailed deer. Her appointment came with a tenured professorship in wildlife biology at Rubenstein.
She plans to help faculty members there sharpen their focus on global issues by establishing international service-learning programs. In collaboration with the International Crane Foundation and partners in China, she is setting up one such program at Vermont that will expand on her work at Wisconsin. The project will offer fourth- and fifth-graders in Weining, in southwestern China, environmental education after school and at summer camps.
A doctoral student at Vermont, Ren Qing, will work on the project beginning this fall, and will go to China next summer to run the educational programs and teacher-training workshops. As part of her research, Ms. Ren will also do biodiversity monitoring at Cao Hai Nature Reserve, near Weining, a wintering place for the black-necked crane and other bird species.
Ms. Mathews expects that undergraduates from Wisconsin and Vermont and from Guizhou University will also have opportunities in China to help with the educational programs and biodiversity monitoring.
Of the University of Vermont, she says, "It is really important for me to be in an environment that values things that I value and that’s forward-looking."