Kanawha Project Introduces Climate Change to Interdisciplinary Faculty and Students

Madison Koenig
March 20, 2014

When it started in 2007, the Kanawha Project focused on introducing Ohio University faculty to environmental sustainability topics that they could incorporate in their classes.  Now the project is moving in a new direction.

"The overall goal of this project is to build climate change literacy," said Nancy Manring, an associate professor of political science.  She co-leads the project with Lorain McCosker, outreach coordinator with the environmental studies program at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

The project is a collaboration between the Voinovich School and University College.

Following a similar model from Emory University, Manring and Michele Morrone, director of environmental studies at the time, ran the project in its first year under an 1804 grant.  McCosker soon joined the team and they successfully applied for a two-year grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which helped them expand to the regional campuses. Manring and McCosker received a second 1804 grant in 2010, which allowed them to invite more faculty members and begin including student scholars.

Now, the organizers are incorporating a specific focus on climate change as a part of their sustainability education.

This round of the Kanawha Project began in December, when faculty and student participants attended a day-long workshop at the Voinovich School.  Presentations introduced the issues surrounding climate change, including its impact at international and local levels.

This semester, participants meet every month for learning communities that each focus on a different topic. In January, Ryan Fogt, assistant professor of meteorology in the College of Arts and Sciences, discussed the science behind climate change.  In February, participants toured the Lausche Heating Plant and learned about the operation of the coal plant and its upcoming transition from coal to natural gas, then met with local author Jeff Wilson to talk about energy conservation and efficiency.  The meeting in March will be led by student scholars.

Students' initiative is a key component of the Kanawha Project. Sara Sand, a freshman studying engineering physics, heard about the project from an older student who was a participant last time.  She is interested in studying alternative energy, and thought this project would be a good opportunity for her to learn more about the issues surrounding the topic.

"It's a cause that I'm passionate about, and any chance that I get to share that with other people and spread that news on campus and improve our campus in that way is really exciting to me," she said.

The scholars are planning to reach out to other students and educate them about climate change issues. On Friday, March 14, they began a project to showcase support for environmental responsibility.  They have begun taking pictures of students and faculty holding a white board with their reason for caring about climate change and thoughts on preventing it. They will present this campaign, along with other efforts by members of the Kanawha Project, at the 2014 Student Research and Creativity Expo on April 10.

Faculty participants are also a key element in the Kanawha Project, and they come from a range of disciplines, including communication studies, English, sociology and mathematics.  McCosker said that the interdisciplinary aspect is one of the biggest draws for faculty participants.

"Faculty love this project because they come together out of their disciplines," she said.

Manring added, "Each time we've done it, the project has such life and vibrancy because it's such a great opportunity for diverse faculty members to interact."

The interdisciplinary aspect was certainly a draw for Molly Gurien. For Gurien, the most valuable part of the Kanawha Project is the interaction with other professors and the opportunity to learn about all of the resources Ohio University has to offer.

"We were not just learning more information about climate change, but also different ways to better communicate this information with students and across campus, and also learning about different resources," she said.

The instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences teaches a class called "Conservation and Biodiversity," and hopes to include more information about climate change's impact on plants and animals after participating in the Kanawha Project.

You might not expect a doctoral candidate in creative writing to have much in common with Gurien.  However, Maggie Messit, a nonfiction writer who has worked as a journalist in South Africa, shares her passion for the environment. She teaches a class called "Writing about Environmental Sustainability," a junior-level composition course that introduces students to different writing approaches to environmental issues, from poetry and songs about coal mining to government documents detailing the impacts of acid mine drainage.

"We explore the importance of storytelling in educating people about these issues," she said.

Messit encourages he students to think about how environmental issues intersect and impact each other, and she hopes to use the information and resources from the Kanawha Project to better explain how climate change interacts with other environmental issues.

McCosker noted that although the project has changed over the years, it still finds support from the Ohio University community, in terms of both participation and financial support.

"We're very pleased that the University continues to fund these projects," she said.

Manring agrees, saying that the support has allowed the project to grow in new directions.

"We've received three 1804 grants over the years; that says something about the value of the Kanawha Project," she said.