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Student-led education on big issues

They each got to CEMUS in different ways—– Isak Stoddard, Sanna Gunnarsson, Lovisa Håkansson, Anneli Ekbom och Bengt Gustafsson. .

How do we solve the climate crisis? How do we get a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources? These are the sorts of questions discussed in the courses offered at CEMUS, the Centre for Environment and Development Studies. At CEMUS, students choose their teachers from among different academic fields, according to a unique model that has worked for more than 20 years.

An education on the major issues, in which the students choose the teachers, with space for a range of different perspectives and disciplines. This was the starting point for the “People and Nature” course that was the launching pad for CEMUS.
In the early 1990s, Bengt Gustafsson, Professor of Astrophysics, was contacted by a few students who wanted to start the programme.
He helped them realise their plans, with support from top university management. He has since served on the CEMUS board and given a number of lectures.
“I’m actually amazed that it’s still going,” says Gustafsson. “Starting a course is one thing, but that new generations of students have succeeded in taking the centre forward with enthusiasm and quality is really an accomplishment.”
Over twenty years later, much is still the same. CEMUS has not become a department, but is instead part of the Centre for Sustainable Development. The students are still involved in the development of the content of the interdisciplinary courses. Other things have changed. There is a larger course offering, for instance, and a third of the students now come from other countries.

We gathered a few people with different roles at CEMUS around a table in the courtyard of the Department of Earth Sciences. They each got to CEMUS in different ways, but one thing they all have in common was the quest for something different than traditional university education.
“I had heard that it was student-led and less hierarchical, a place where you could get involved,” says student Lovisa Håkansson.

Isak Stoddard, Acting Progamme

Isak Stoddard is the Acting Programme Director at CEMUS and has been involved in various assignments over the past ten years. He is an engineer and studied engineering physics. After two years at Uppsala University, he took the course “The Global Economy – Environment, Development and Globalisation,” and a lot of things fell into place.
“It was an awakening to see how higher education could be carried out in a different way than the traditional. It took a while to understand that it was student-led – I only realised after a few months that it was students who were running the courses.”
CEMUS is also an important forum for teachers and researchers. Anneli Ekblom conducts research in environmental history and archaeology and is participating in CEMUS’s Global Environmental History course.
“I was drawn to CEMUS because disciplines are too narrow for what I want to do. I don’t fit in the traditional system.”

What does it mean for teaching that the courses are planned and led by students? Ekblom: As a student, I didn’t understand the idea behind CEMUS’s structure, but once I began working as a teacher and in working groups, I understood. I’ve learned so much about teaching. As a teacher, you often take the initiative from students from day one, but here, we start from the other direction, with the students. It’s a regular classroom situation here, too, but the students are active and know that how well the course turns out is up to them. The students also have a responsibility to ask critical questions.
Håkansson: Exactly. And the lecturers we’ve had came here under that premise. That has never been a problem, though – they’ve been very receptive to questions. We’ve learned a way of thinking that isn’t only about learning facts. It is a systematic thinking process, to consider a problem from different angles and look at how different factors integrate with each other. What is the core problem?
Gustafsson: You can’t only see CEMUS as an education for those taking the courses, but also have to look at it as education for the hundreds who have worked here as teaching assistants. They have learned a lot about organising education in a rather complicated world of varying interests.

Sanna Gunnarsson, teaching assistant. In the background: Professor Bengt Gustafsson.

Behind every course is a working group of researchers, teachers and students. It is the students, employed as teaching assistants, who set the agenda and make the proposals. There is a good relationship with the teachers, says Sanna Gunnarsson.
“It’s a lot about cooperation and dialogue both in the classroom – between students, teaching assistants and lecturers – and behind the scenes in the planning.
She can’t really answer the question of what has been most rewarding about working as a teaching assistant.
“Everything has been fun! It is really stimulating work and at the same time very challenging, both learning all the organisational skills and helping to build a common theme for the course. The lecturers generally don’t come in with an interdisciplinary perspective, but instead that is created in the room.”

An interdisciplinary approach has been part of the programme since the start and over the years CEMUS has increasingly come to interact with the outside community.
“We bring in non-academics as speakers – such as cultural workers, entrepreneurs or artists – to highlight new perspectives on issues. This means that the students also build relationships and work with other stakeholders in the community during their education,” says Stoddard.
But what are the links to research like in a place run by students and offering freestanding courses? Well, that link is already an integral part of CEMUS’s educational model and organisation, and has been strengthened since the professorship in climate change leadership was established two years ago after a donation from IT entrepreneur Niklas Zennström. The themes are the same as in the popular CEMUS course in climate leadership.
The ten-year professorship has an unusual structure, since each professor has a fixed appointment term of one or two years. There will thus be a total of at least five professors. The first to hold the position was Doreen Stabinsky, Professor of Global Environmental Politics. In late August, she was succeeded by Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change.

What has the climate change professorship meant?
Stoddard: We will have different areas of focus with each new professor and hope to build a very exciting research environment around the professorship. Over a ten-year period, we’ll have had a group of world-leading researchers and personalities who have got to know each other and a unique environment on these issues in Sweden.
Gustafsson: There has long been discussion about CEMUS and how it would link to research. Researchers are involved in the planning of the courses and there are visiting teachers who also conduct research, but they can only be here to inspire for a short time. So I think it is very natural for CEMUS to have a greater link to research with prominent researchers who are here for a longer period of time. CEMUS can back this up with related courses.

Anneli Ekbom, Senior Lecturer.

The unique educational model has received a lot of attention and was actually a contributing factor in the two climate change professors’ decisions to come here.
“In the past five years, others have begun to work in similar ways, for example in Arizona in the US, in Finland and in Austria,” says Stoddard. “Often, they’ve started with one course or a seminar model initiated by a couple of students.”
Ekblom sees this as an expression of a frustration among both students and researchers that research alone is never enough to save the world. Action is also required.
“I feel that many students I meet are frustrated and think that they have to choose between science and actually doing something. I think that CEMUS is very good at balancing that. You can actually be a scientist and still retain your passion for things. You can be an activist and a scientist at the same time.”



Discussion participants:

  • Bengt Gustafsson, Professor Emeritus of Astrophysics
  • Anneli Ekblom, teacher, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology
  • Lovisa Håkansson, student
  • Sanna Gunnarsson, teaching assistant
  • Isak Stoddard, Acting Programme Director and coordinator for the Zennström Visiting Professorship in Climate Leadership.

Cemus (Centre for Environment and Development Studies)

  • was formally established in 1995 as a student-led, interdisciplinary centre at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
  • aims to contribute to a more sustainable world.
  • has worked since the early 1990s for interdisciplinary student-led higher education, and for research and collaborative projects across disciplinary borders and across the borders between academia and society.
  • Courses are offered at first-, second- and third-cycle levels, including: Sustainable Development; Global Environmental History; Climate, Energy and the Modern Society; and Climate Change Leadership in Practice.

28 October 2016