An important element of the Global Change Ecology master program is active participation in science schools. This allows students to delve deeper into subjects that interest them, or perhaps to learn more about topics they are not familiar with. These courses also provide an opportunity for students to make connections and develop a strong international network of colleagues for future collaboration in the environmental field. While science schools typically take place in-person, many programs were forced to adapt to emergent conditions and transition to an online curriculum during the summer of 2020. I participated in one of these courses recently, and I would like to share my experience with you all!
This year’s AEMS summer school took place over three weeks through late July and August. Over this period of time, students learned not only the basics about financial systems but also about tools of change across different sectors. What are some realistic ways in which our current systems can shift to be more sustainable and how can we add our own power behind this push? We explored this question through interaction with speakers and other students, writing blog posts and the final group project, in which we all presented our own idea for a project of change.
In Vienna… Or anywhere!
In total, thirty-six students from seventeen countries took part in the course. While the digital format meant that many participants were not located in Vienna, it made the science school very accessible to students and lecturers across the world. Students, organizers and lecturers could maintain contact and easily ask or answer questions as they arose through the use of digital tools like Zoom, Discord and YouTube. Furthermore, even after the school has ended, the channels remain open.
I absolutely had concerns about completing a fully digital science school! I worried about missing out on the personal side of group cooperation and learning, which (as I am sure we all know by now) comes so much more naturally in a physical setting compared to online. I thought I would have trouble remaining engaged through a computer screen and might not absorb the material well or burn out. I will admit that these things did end up being, at times, a challenge. At the beginning, I did struggle with feeling awkward trying to connect with a bunch of total strangers over the internet. And yes, sometimes it did take extra work to focus myself on lessons through a screen. However, all those strangers and I were both invested and interested in exploring avenues toward a better future, and we all found common ground just like in a physical setting – and suddenly, we became true colleagues! It was a mentally strenuous few weeks, but with motivation (and well-placed computer breaks), we made it through to our final change projects. It was great to hear how different groups integrated the weeks’ knowledge to propose change projects about how to support climate-friendly mobility, how to maintain businesses within planetary boundaries, the role of community currency, food sovereignty and more!
In the end…
The organizers of the AEMS science school were able to provide academically rigorous instruction for students online without sacrificing the elements of collaboration and group discussion that can potentially pose a problem for digital learning formats. Ultimately, the course organizers as well as the students both agree that AEMS 2020 accomplished the overall aim of “spreading the ideas of change and showing alternatives to the current economic and monetary system” and support student learning “to achieve a socially just and environmentally sustainable future”!