With a lamp shaped like a large light bulb on his desk, a sawdust toilet in the corner, an eclectic art collection on the walls, and shelves full of books, Dr. Kurt Grimm’s office in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at UBC reflects the thinking space of a scholar and explorer with big ideas.

He is one of four recipients benefiting from the Sustainability Teaching and Learning Spotlight Program, which awards UBC course instructors who have a demonstrated interest in sustainability education with a $5,000 honorarium to expand, revise, or redevelop existing UBC courses. The program is annual and is open to instructors from all academic disciplines with a strong background in teaching and curriculum development and an interest in innovative pedagogies.

Dr. Grimm has been teaching EOSC 312: The Earth System and Environmental Evolution since he arrived at UBC in 1992. The course explores Earth’s environmental history to better understand contemporary global change—however, this simple course description belies the depth of the classroom experience.

“EOSC 312 has always been a crucible for experimentation and each year it is very different,” Dr. Grimm says. “The major themes of Earth systems science and sustainability, well before anybody called it sustainability, are foundational. In recent years, these planetary and life science themes have led into regional, local and, most substantially, personal sustainability themes.”

In June of 2010, Dr. Grimm applied to the Spotlight program seeking funds to refine the course curriculum and write a textbook reflective of the course’s innovative Transformational Sustainability Learning pedagogy. The course also uses mind mapping as a key teaching tool—an approach with broad applications that involves the creation of unique diagrams to catalyze visual brainstorms. Mind map are used in the course for description, student explorations and assessment, and are central to the course textbook.

Spotlight program funds were awarded in October of 2010 for use during the 2010/2011 academic year. The funds Dr. Grimm received spurred risk-taking and experimentation with the course curriculum, focused a collegial commitment with project partner Alison Aloisio, and enabled him to hire a student graphic designer and professional cartoonist, Phil Testemale, to put many new mind maps into final form.

Equally important, Dr. Grimm says the award provided him with timely validation from respected colleagues and sustainability professionals at UBC.

“Even though sustainability has been a substantial part of my effort and my innovation at UBC, I have never fully engaged with my faculty colleagues as a sustainability scholar and educator. My publications are all about science, and transformative sustainability learning was really something I did on the side. This is the first time that I can actually engage with my colleagues on an innovative experiment that we’re actively doing, so that’s exciting.”

With a unique lexicon of terms used in the classroom such as Life-centric, wonder-full, bizzyness, and sustain-ability, EOSC 312 is a science-based course for non-scientists and explores climate dynamics, the planetary phenomenon of life and central themes in sustainability sciences. Personal reflection, through research and the creation of Personal Sustainability Portfolios, aims to help students internalize their learning.

”Being real, and asking big questions like, ‘What do you want your life to be about?’ propel all of us more deeply into sustainability,” Dr. Grimm says. “Based on the experiences I’ve been taking students into over the years, the course really catalyzes and initiates an internal thought process, and people are taking key steps forward.”

Feedback from EOSC 312 students—including suggestions and personal sustainability stories for the evolving textbook (working title: What is Sustainability?)—confirms that they’re benefiting from the innovation afforded by the Spotlight program funding. “I think this last semester was the best so far… we had a great class, thanks in part to the Spotlight funding, which gave us the resources and momentum to refine our curriculum and make it as innovative and impactful as possible,” says Dr. Grimm.

Dr. Jean Marcus, Associate Director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative’s Teaching & Learning Office, says courses such as EOSC 312 are exactly what the Spotlight program is intended to support.

“Our intent with the Spotlight Program is to provide instructors like Dr. Grimm with the opportunity to rethink an existing course and modify it in a timely fashion, to increase the course’s relevance to sustainability issues and make it more accessible to students,” says Dr. Marcus.

The Spotlight program’s call for proposals for the 2011-2012 academic year will go out in April, and the deadline for application will be June 10, 2011. “Four courses will be selected each year, leading to immediate and tangible improvements for sustainability education at UBC,” she says.

With solid progress being made on the EOSC 312 course textbook, which is nearing completion, Dr. Grimm is feeling optimistic about his work. He says the Spotlight program has allowed him to feed his endless curiosity about sustainability both inside and outside the classroom—and the process has simply been good fun.

“With the interactions I’ve had with the Sustainability Fellows  and Spotlight recipients, I’m freshly discovering that there are great people doing great things with great ideas. The Spotlight Program has provided an exciting new pool of passionate colleagues. It’s fun being in this pool, and I intend to keep playing here!”

By Madelen Ortega, UBC Sustainability website writer