Sara Tjossem is a senior lecturer and associate director of curriculum in the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program (MPA-ESP). Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of science and society, agriculture, marine science, and the development of environmental movements and policy. This fall, Tjossem is offering two elective courses: ENVP U6320 Political Context of Environmental Management and INAF U6087 Environmental Advocacy: From Interest to Action.
Tjossem has long felt an emotional affinity for nature and the natural world. During undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, Tjossem enjoyed both the humanities and sciences. She decided to become a biology major and wanted to maintain engagement with the natural world as a scientist.
Tjossem continued this passion at Cornell University in an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate program, but decided that instead of practicing science directly, she wanted to communicate scientific excitement to others. So it was during her PhD program—also at Cornell—that Tjossem was able to look at themes of how the world changes, damage to the Earth, and how to treat these problems effectively with policy and communication.
Teaching at the Columbia ESP program melded Dr. Tjossem’s different interests. The MPA-ESP program is a manifestation of what she finds interesting as well as what she believes students should learn about human responses to the natural and built worlds. She believes the best way to do so is through environmental policy. By learning the science, policy, and management skills, students can better protect all parts of the Earth. Below are synopses of her two courses this fall.
ENVP U6320 Political Context of Environmental Management
The first feature elective taught by Tjossem focuses on how the politics of environmental management work. When asked about the course, Tjossem said that many students may struggle with looking at the natural world and wonder how we got to the point of such a dysfunctional relationship with the environment. There exists a relatively short history of environmental policy. Some policy is great, other policies are problematic, and some have unintended consequences. Interest groups, stakeholders, and different political contexts meld together to see how we think the world works and how we should interact.
The class uses Deborah Stone’s book, “Policy Paradox: Art of Political Decision Making” as its backbone. The book is accessible and uses many easily understandable metaphors to help students recognize why policy making should not be viewed as frustrating, but instead as an interesting process of engagement. Moreover, the course helps to explain why the art of compromise is critical for making policy. It goes through many different movements that shape the managed environment.
INAF U6087 Environmental Advocacy: From Interest to Action
Tjossem takes student input to help shape all of her courses. She is receptive to students’ passions and incorporates them into the class topics and assignments. This course in particular is shaped around students’ environmental interests. These interests can stem from environmental justice or injustice as long as it is in the realm of policy information. The class brings in environmental history to contextualize the students’ contemporary interests, and then fills them out further with ways to act upon those passions.
Last year was the first year this course was taught. It incorporates loads of information from books, treaties, journals, and many other sources. One student focused on the topic of climate refugees – who recognizes them, and whether there will be many of them in the near future. This student’s research was used to help inform a leading NGO’s work on the matter.
“I think we are on the cusp of a great awakening of society in general, and by many components of society, that we cannot escape the biosphere,” says Tjossem. A renaissance or awareness of individuals being the stewards of our Earth is of utmost importance. She explains that the concern over the planet’s wellbeing can be used to form a sense of stewardship that can be fostered in many ways. There are so many ways to interact with the natural world, she insists; there is something for everyone. Learning how to mash a student’s interest with how to make a better world is key.
Tjossem believes these courses can help students who want to do something satisfying with their lives. When people do work for the class, they can learn more about themselves, learn subject matter, and become part of a bigger community of activists and professionals. She cares about her students, their professional trajectories and tries to help them figure out how to shape their journey. An increased understanding of processes of managing the environment is useful for everyone. Nowadays, faced with ever more critical challenges, we fortunately have both remarkable new tools and age-old ones to address our relationships to the environment.
The advocacy class in general is about the roots of environmental injustice and the climate crisis movement. While such topics can be bleak and next steps for action are uncertain, Tjossem points to the hope and optimism her students give her through their passion for helping the planet and its inhabitants.
Both courses are available for enrollment for all graduate level students. They have historically had mixed enrollment from within the university. Any questions about the courses can be sent to Professor Tjossem at email@example.com.
Taylor Goto is an alum of the Climate and Society program, Class of 2021.