Climate Change and Curriculum: Georgetown’s Core Pathways Initiative at Five Years
By Sarah Craig, SFS ‘23 & Assistant at The Red House
In a time seemingly defined by an unprecedented number of climate catastrophes, the need for environmental justice work has grown more salient than ever.
Following a year-long, collaborative design process, Core Pathways was launched in 2017 by the Red House, Georgetown’s educational research and design unit. A variety of thematic courses that allow students to fulfill their core requirements is the program’s main component.
This innovative initiative will enable students to take, for example, “Ethics of Climate Change” and “Climate Change and Global Justice” to fulfill their philosophy requirement, or take “Literature and Environmental Crisis” and “Climate Storytelling” to fulfill their humanities requirement.
Interest or experience in environmentalism is not a requirement for the program—in fact, one of the goals of Core Pathways is to attract students who don’t have a background in the field.
For Core Pathways co-founder Randall Amster, involving students with various backgrounds is an essential part of achieving climate justice.
“To address [climate change] fully, it will require way more than any one person, community, discipline, field of study, methodology,” Amster said. “We’re going to need all hands on deck and all perspectives to even have a thought of meaningfully addressing the issue.”
Dagomar Degroot, a professor in the Core Pathways Initiative, concurs with the need for interdisciplinarity.
“Climate change is a problem that affects just about every aspect of human life—and not just human life, but every aspect of the planet. It has very complicated causes that are ultimately rooted in human action,” Degroot said. “Every discipline has something to offer.”
Degroot teaches two courses in the program, both of which focus on the history of climate change. To him, analyzing climate change through a historical lens is critical to his perspective of climate justice.
“I kind of wear two hats. One is the history hat, which you need to figure out how fast populations respond to climate change. But the other is a science hat, which you need to figure out how the climate has actually changed in the past in the first place. And so I’m a very interdisciplinary scholar—this pedagogy really makes a lot of sense to me,” he said.
For Charlie Wang (SFS ’22), the interdisciplinary nature of the program was a huge draw.
“I think it’s very interesting, the way that Core Pathways is structured—I got to really understand the issues regarding climate change, and also some of the potential ways to address it in a very interdisciplinary way,” he said.
A core tenet of Core Pathways is pedagogical innovation, something that has become synonymous with a commitment to climate justice. Students take a series of four 1.5 credit classes across one academic year; with each class being just 7.5 weeks, students have the opportunity to explore a different area of a core requirement as it relates to climate change. According to Amster, the modular structure allows students to explore alternative course structures and, in turn, various ways of addressing climate change.
“[The modular structure] is not only to make it pedagogically innovative; it’s also to reflect the idea that we felt that it was critically important for students to think about climate change through a range of different perspectives and lenses,” he said.
A key component of pedagogical innovation in the program is a high degree of student involvement, something that can be found in both the classroom and the actual development of the courses.
“Core Pathways was built for students, but it was also built by students,” said Amster. “And I would say, as a five-year-old project, now, it’s continually being built with students.”
“To address [climate change] fully, it will require way more than any one person, community, discipline, field of study, methodology.”
Degroot identified student involvement and feedback as foundational to the program.
“What was important for us, from the beginning, was to bring those student fellows into the actual planning meetings, right from the start,” Degroot said. “And the point of that is that it’s not just faculty imposing a kind of solution or pedagogy onto the students, but that it’s a bit more of a back and forth process. I think that’s part of the reason why the curriculum ultimately works well for students.”
Students in the program have the opportunity to become Core Pathways Fellows, who assist with courses, develop integrative experiences, and take up individual projects.
As a Core Pathways Fellow, Carolyn Ren (SFS ’23) has had the opportunity to develop integrative days, which are program-wide collaborative learning experiences in which all Core Pathways students engage once per semester.
“Integrative days are such a unique experience. I don’t think other programs offer similar exercises,” Ren said.
Whether it be through solving simulated climate disasters, working with off-campus clients, or creating gallery exhibits, the goal of integrative days is for students to apply their knowledge from the course to an external experience.
“I think that Core Pathways is really trying to allow students to employ their knowledge to real-life situations, real-life scenarios, and let them know that the information they have obtained throughout the Core Pathways program, there are places where this information could be useful,” said Ren.
The application of knowledge from Core Pathways classes is important to both Ren and Wang, who have each been able to tie environmentalism to their chosen career paths.
Ren’s time in the Global Justice and Climate Change course helped influence her interest in law.
“It was one of the major reasons why I decided to pursue a future legal career studying human rights,” Ren said. “I really appreciate my opportunity working with Core Pathways and taking these classes, because it kind of opened up a new career path for me as well.”
Wang, who studied international economics at Georgetown, sees a clear overlap between economics and environmentalism.
“I think the study of economics is pretty much a study of trade-offs—of policy trade-offs—and how to balance different policy priorities,” Wang said. “I think that’s what environmental studies is also about, because on the one hand, we have to have economic growth, but on the other hand, we have to think about long term environmental costs as well.”
To Professor Wesley Della Volla, Core Pathways creates a space for students to learn how climate justice relates to their career ambitions, something that is especially important as college students prepare to become a new generation of leaders.
“I think 18 to 20 year olds are who I should be talking to, and who I should be learning from,” he said. “They are stepping into becoming the next generation of voters, people who are engaged and active—scientists, storytellers.”
As a climate storyteller, Della Volla believes that narrative and communication is key to addressing climate change.
“We all know climate change is happening—talking back and forth to ourselves doesn’t advance anything. So how do we communicate beyond that?” he asks.
The relevance of this question grows with each passing day, as climate change continues to threaten our planet. And as these threats prevail, Core Pathways hopes to be a space that engages the Georgetown community in climate justice, with the goal of creating a long-lasting impact.
“I don’t think climate change is an issue that can be fixed in the very near future. So our goal is to get more people involved in the process, make more people aware of the factors that can lead to climate change, that can impact climate change,” Ren said. “So maybe sometime in their future career, they get to make certain choices that can have a substantial impact on solving this crisis.”
For Wang, Core Pathways provides an example for the rest of the university to follow.
“I think what Georgetown can do better, as far as improving the future, is talk more about the solutions in tackling climate change,” Wang said. “One thing that Core Pathways has been very good at in the past is showing different perspectives on how to tackle this issue from different angles.”
Degroot agrees that Core Pathways has the potential to expand to different parts of Georgetown.
“I hope that we see more of a buy-in from different departments, even more than we have so far,” Degroot said.
With Core Pathways offering more classes every semester, increased buy-in from other parts of the Georgetown community appears increasingly feasible. Further hopes of expansion for the program include connecting with other climate engagements on campus and designing other problem-focused course offerings.
And as Core Pathways continues to grow, so does its reach. By simultaneously allowing students to fulfill their core requirements and learn about climate change, the program weaves core concepts of environmentalism into the foundation of students’ college experience, imbuing a sense of responsibility and awareness in the next generation of leaders.
The resources for Core Pathways have been made possible over the years by generous gifts from Gabriela Smith, Bill and Karen Sonneborn, Jon and Patricia Baker, and Nina and Chris Buchbinder.