Environment Centre cz bw204
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An attractive starting point for reflections on natural sciences education is ancient Greek natural philosophy, the mother of natural sciences one could say. The objective of natural philosophers was to understand the physical environment and the changes taking place in that environment. Another important philosophical question was ‘What is a good life in a moral sense?’ Two rationalities were discriminated:  instrumental rationality – the best means to realise an objective – and substantial rationality – authentic values and principles that one chooses for in freedom. The methodology used for knowledge generation by ancient Greek natural philosophers was observation, construction of mental models and discussion. Knowledge dissemination was in the hands of private teachers teaching in informal environments like for instance a sport school (gymnasium). Scol? meant creating free space to think and discuss with others.

Abstract of the speech

Innovations in environmental sciences education: the Open University of the Netherlands as an example

which will be given at the conference “Sustainability at Universities: What Are the Possibilities” (to be held in Prague, Czech Republic, on 5 – 6 September 2005)

by Rietje van Dam-Mieras, Open University of the Netherlands

Introduction

An attractive starting point for reflections on natural sciences education is ancient Greek natural philosophy, the mother of natural sciences one could say. The objective of natural philosophers was to understand the physical environment and the changes taking place in that environment. Another important philosophical question was ‘What is a good life in a moral sense?’ Two rationalities were discriminated:  instrumental rationality – the best means to realise an objective – and substantial rationality – authentic values and principles that one chooses for in freedom. The methodology used for knowledge generation by ancient Greek natural philosophers was observation, construction of mental models and discussion. Knowledge dissemination was in the hands of private teachers teaching in informal environments like for instance a sport school (gymnasium). Scol? meant creating free space to think and discuss with others.

Since that time much developments have taken place in the field of knowledge generation and dissemination of knowledge to society. During the knowledge revolution that took place in Europe in the 17th century major changes took place in the methodology of knowledge generation. Observation using human senses was ‘extended’ by the use of instruments and in discussions about theories and models academies of sciences and scientific journals got  a role. In that period the (natural)scientific method was developed and a system of quality control by peers was introduced. These developments lead to the concept of ‘verified truth’ and to a disciplinary approach to knowledge generation; both concepts are still rather dominant in our society, for instance in the system of law, research and education.

The general idea about knowledge in the 19th century was that knowledge has universal value and therefore is context independent. In our present thinking knowledge can not be separated from the context in which it is developed and before knowledge developed in one context can be applied in another context is has to be translated to that context. Furthermore, as societal problems are always complex problems the use of knowledge to solve societal problems must not only be of good scientific quality as assessed by peer review, it should also be societally robust, which asks for forms of peer review in which also societal stakeholders are involved.

Problems in the field of environmental sciences and sustainable development are always complex problems in which different levels of scale and different system levels are involved. Such problems ask for a multidisciplinary approach and stakeholder involvement. These characteristics play an important role in designing environmental sciences education. As in our present globalised world continuous change seems to be the most stable characteristic, environmental sciences education will have to change continuously as well. In the next part an overview of the changes in environmental sciences education at the Open University of the Netherlands will be given.

Environmental Sciences at OUN in 1984

After a few years of preparation the Open University of the Netherlands started officially in 1984. Working in the domain of distance education the challenge was to design programs in such a way that good academic quality was combined with as much freedom of time, place and pace for students as possible. The mission of the Open University was twofold: a) offer a second route through or a second chance on higher education to adults in the Dutch society and b) contribute to the innovation of higher education in the Netherlands. Looking back after 20 years it can be concluded that the second part of the mission was the most difficult one, not in the least because of the ‘not invented here’ phenomenon and a somewhat conservative tendency in higher education.

The Open University of the Netherlands started with 7 faculties and for each faculty a preparatory committee had indicated the domain in which the programmes had to be developed. For the faculty of Natural Sciences the programmes to be developed were Environmental Sciences and Food and Nutrition. Both programmes had a common natural sciences base. In the Environmental Sciences Programme there were two specialisations, one with emphasis on environmental policy and one with emphasis on a natural sciences approach to environmental issues. The faculty of Natural Sciences has had an multidisciplinary staff from its start on. In addition to the natural sciences disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences with mathematics as an supportive subject) also policy and management sciences were involved. The methodology for course development was very modern for that time. A course never was the responsibility of just one professional, but always of a multidisciplinary team. A course team was composed of relevant content specialists, educational scientists and media specialists. The programme design was a modular one: by combining different course modules in the programme different specialisations could be created. So using this modular approach a certain degree of flexibility could be realised at the level of the programme. At course level, however, flexibility was rather limited. Emphasis was on written material, supported by face to face teaching and practicals if necessary.

Environmental Sciences at OUN in 2004

Although the Open University of the Netherlands is thus a very young university, the changes in the Environmental Sciences programmes over a period of 20 years are rather big. There are several reasons for that. In the first place society has changed a lot over that 20 year period. After ‘the environment’ was put on the agenda by ao. The Club of Rome, environmental sciences were incorporated in the ‘wider issue’ sustainable development by the Brundtland report and WSSD 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. In the second place a European space for (higher) education is being formed and the Bologna process directs European higher education to a Bachelor Master structure. In the third place developments in the field of ICT offer many opportunities for the innovation of education. This potential remains largely to be explored. An additional challenge, certainly in the Netherlands, lies in the fact that the number of students enrolling in traditional natural sciences studies like physics and chemistry is continuously decreasing while on the other hand studies in the life science domain and in the field of management studies have increasing student numbers. There may be many reasons for that phenomenon, but one explanation could be that the rather abstract approach to learning in classical natural sciences is no longer appealing for students because the relevance for daily life is not perceived. All these factors are taken into account in the continuous redesign of the Environmental Sciences curriculum; several examples will be given in the presentation.