Geography Seminar Gives Students Unique Insight into Environmental Policy

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By Dario Balca – Carleton Newsroom, Monday January 19, 2015

A Carleton geography instructor recently decided to explore a new teaching style to give students a glimpse of how Canada’s environmental policy decisions are really made.

Instead of studying for an exam, students in Ryan Katz-Rosene’s fourth-year geography seminar spent the fall semester preparing for a simulated committee hearing where each argued a different side of one of Canada’s most controversial topics: the Alberta oil sands.

The activity, Katz-Rosene said, provides a good taste of the kind of work many of his students will be doing after they graduate.

“If they go and work for an environmental organization or some private-sector company or the government, they could be involved in this type of activity,” he said. “It gives students a window into the democratic process and helps them understand the fact that the way people and resources and the environment interact is the result of a complex process.”

For the hearing, students were asked to take on the role of a real stakeholder in the oil sands and represent its interests or concerns in front of a group of peers modelled after the standing committee on Alberta’s economic future.

The 17 groups the students represented varied from energy companies in favour of development such as Enbridge and TransCanada to those against development like Greenpeace. Several students also spoke on behalf of various First Nations communities across the country at the Dec. 2 hearing.

For 29-year-old environmental studies student, Thomas Desjardins, the chief benefit of the exercise was being exposed to this diversity of perspectives for the first time.

“It forces you to think on both sides of the issue which is something that I don’t think we’re challenged enough to do in university,” he said.

Desjardins, who argued for development of the oil sands on behalf of Enbridge, said the course helped him put his aside personal opinions and gain a more thorough knowledge of the oil sands issue.

“I never would have thought about Enbridge’s side of the argument in depth unless it was for a simulated activity like this,” he said, “so the goal here is really understanding how important it is to think critically and be open-minded about something as huge as the oil sands.”

Katz-Rosene said the idea to organize the class this way came from his own experience as an undergraduate student at Trent University.

“When I was a fourth-year student, I took part in a similar type of simulated assignment and it was a really formative experience,” he said. “This is an important topic and a controversial topic and I thought it would be a good opportunity for them to learn this way.”

Holly Jones, a student in the Public Affairs and Policy Management (PAPM) program, said more courses at Carleton should adopt this way of exploring ideas.

“I’m actually surprised that I haven’t had something like this before,” said the 22-year-old. “Being able to take on a role, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it, is a good challenge just in terms of having a really well-rounded and comprehensive view of any situation.

“That’s where the real value of this kind of thing is.”

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