George Mason University
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George Mason University

What is Honors 260? Dolan's class on Climate Change and Public Policy

March 29, 2019

Imagine a course focused on climate change where students think like journalists, researchers, and policymakers.  Dr. Dana Dolan’s seminar, “Climate Change Adaptation: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Policy,” allows Honors College students to wear multiple hats while embracing their roles as engaged citizens.  This semester-long civic engagement experience prepares students to think critically about how media, policy and advocacy interact to improve human resilience to climate change impacts.

Dr. Dolan’s course, which will be offered as HNRS 260 starting Fall 2019, emphasizes civic learning through various one-of-a-kind assignments and in-class activities.  Students explore climate change adaptation through the lens of John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Theory, a framework that visualizes the complexities of the U.S. policymaking process.

The class builds on the inquiry-based research skills that Honors College students develop in HNRS 110.  Dr. Dolan’s students spend much of their semester pursuing an individual research project on a relevant topic that reflects their personal and career interests.

Research project topics range from impacts on agriculture and biodiversity to policies affecting the development of adaptation infrastructure. “There’s a lot of leeway to focus on something they’re passionate about,” says Dr. Dolan, who researches how climate change adaptation fluctuated on the policy agenda during Australia’s Millennium Drought.

“I love seeing my students' eyes open to the fact that we don’t have to accept the policies that are in place today.”

Dr. Dana Dolan

Dr. Dolan engages her students through unique exercises throughout the semester.  One standout activity is the Problem Brief assignment.  Students act as journalists: they write articles on climate change adaptation topics of their choice, publish their work on a public-facing web forum, and provide each other with constructive feedback.

“One advantage of having this forum be publicly facing is that students can point employers to their work,” explains Dr. Dolan, whose students gain valuable writing skills while building their professional portfolios.

Dr. Dolan’s course is popular with current and former students, many of whom begin the class with minimal experience exploring climate change and policy topics.

“This class has been a source of tremendous growth for me. We look at how the cogs of the political system function together,” explains John Kleppinger, an Honors College transfer student.

“This class allows me to see how different aspects of our society interact to inform policy. And that has made me re-evaluate what I want to do professionally.”

John Kleppinger

An Environmental Science major, Kleppinger wants to combine his interests in environmental chemistry and public policy to improve human resilience to inevitable climate change impacts. Dr. Dolan’s course is helping him understand how to apply theory to tangible action.

“I could apply Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Theory to various case studies professionally,” says Kleppinger.  “If I were doing environmental impact assessments, I could look at how NGOs are affecting local or national policy.”

Throughout the course, Dr. Dolan highlights the public policy component, helping students understand how climate policies are formed, implemented and revised.

Unique in-class activities drive Dr. Dolan’s civic learning emphasis. In her Spring 2018 section, she devoted an entire class period to teaching students about gerrymandering.  The class engaged in an exercise that reflects how public officials maintain influence by strategically reorganizing voting precincts along party lines.

“We had to manipulate our hypothetical population to sway the outcome of an election,” explains Erin Cervelli, a sophomore Dance major. “This activity was really fun. My classmates and I learned how dysfunctional congressional districts can be.”

For her semester-long research project, Cervelli examined Hurricane Sandy’s influence on adaptation policies through the lens of public opinion.  She found that public concern significantly spiked in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, pointing to immediate responses through grants and improved infrastructure resilience.  However, these efforts eventually declined.

Cervelli’s research reflects the kind of investigative, inquired-based learning that Honors College students will pursue through the HNRS 260: Society and Community Engagement experience.

Students in Dr. Dolan’s course also learn how to research without bias. “You cannot only look for sources that will support the answer you want to find,” explains Cervelli, who is passionate about climate change. “I had a lot of opinions that I had to leave out of my research.”

Dr. Dolan's class collaborates by offering peer feedback to one another

During class, Dr. Dolan's students collaborate on their group posters, and/or get peer feedback on their case study research proposals.

Beyond research projects, interesting activities and group discussions, Dr. Dolan offers extra credit in the form of experiential learning opportunities.  Last year, one of Dr. Dolan’s students published their revised Problem Brief assignment in the Fourth Estate’s annual April green issue.

This April 12th, her Spring 2019 students are hosting a film screening of the documentary Thule Tuvalu.  The film contrasts the impacts of climate change on Arctic communities to impacts affecting fishermen in Tuvalu’s tropical environment.

“[This] prepares students for civic engagement,” explains Dr. Dolan, whose students are building professional skills by designing and leading this hands-on public engagement event.  Through this activity and others throughout the semester, Dr. Dolan encourages students to ask themselves: “What can you take from the outside world to the class? What can you take from the class and share with the outside world?”

Dr. Dolan notes that her class experience is enriched by the variety of perspectives that her students bring to discussion.

“I love having students who come from different backgrounds, who have different values and understandings of climate change,” says Dr. Dolan. 

In her Spring 2018 section, Dr. Dolan had a student whose family is skeptical about climate change.  Through interactive dialogue about the weekly readings, the student appreciated being exposed to considering climate policies in broader, international contexts.  “She could look at all the belief systems in a new way,” reflects Dr. Dolan.

As Dr. Dolan continues teaching this increasingly popular civic engagement course, she is readjusting her curriculum to optimize student growth.  Dr. Dolan is considering inviting publishers and policy officials to engage with students by offering feedback on Problem Brief articles.  She may also invite more guest speakers whose expertise align with class research interests.

Guest speaker Emma Gregory joined our class to share her work on sea level rise with the Nature Conservancy.  She joined the discussion with students Naveen Shwish and Jazmine Pritchett, who are exploring the role of public opinion and education on policy in their case studies.

Guest speaker Emma Gregory joined our class to share her work on sea level rise with the Nature Conservancy. She joined the discussion with students Naveen Shwish and Jazmine Pritchett, who are exploring the role of public opinion and education on policy in their case studies.

“My students follow their own interests. They end up teaching me about adaptation,” explains Dr. Dolan.  She enjoys seeing her students more easily engage with climate change related conversations and media coverage by the end of the course.

“Since taking this class, I’ve had multiple conversations with people about this class,” says Kleppinger, whose experiences in Dr. Dolan’s course have cultivated his desire to positively impact climate change policy. “Now, when I listen to NPR or read the news, I feel like I’m getting more out of it.”


Original reporting by Jimmy O'Hara.  Photographs courtesy of Dr. Dana Dolan.