Message from the Director

 

Professor Kimberly Strong

Professor Kimberly Strong, Director,
School of the Environment, University of Toront
o

The 2015-16 academic year was a full and exciting one at the School of the Environment. Some highlights include welcoming four new faculty and one new staff member, launching a new annual symposium, awarding two new graduate fellowships, and offering six new courses.

Interdisciplinary study of the environment is at the heart of what the School does, and it seems that this is clearly recognized by our students, faculty, and staff. As part of our efforts to improve communications, we ran a short survey this past year. In answer to the question: "What single word or phrase best describes the School of the Environment?", the most popular adjective was interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary. Happily, this was closely followed by a group of positive adjectives, including such heartwarming phrases as awesome, the best, dynamic, friendly, and welcoming! It was also interesting to see students' responses to the question "Why are you enrolled in a School program?", with almost half indicating that it is because they are passionate about the environment.

In January 2016, Sarah Finkelstein, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, joined the School as our Academic Associate Director (AAD). I thank her for taking on this important role, and I also thank Doug Macdonald for his many contributions as AAD over the previous two-and-a-half years. It was a great pleasure working with Doug, and I appreciated his dedicated and thoughtful approach to every task.

We were also delighted to welcome three more new colleagues this year. John Robinson, formerly the Associate Provost of Sustainability at UBC, is a cross-appointment with the Munk School of Global Affairs whose interests lie in the intersection of sustainability, social, technological and behaviour change, and community engagement. Climate physicist Debra Wunch is a cross-appointment with the Department of Physics who works in the field of remote sensing of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Njal Rollinson is a cross-appointment with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and an aquatic ecologist whose research explores the evolutionary ecology of fish and reptiles. Our new faculty are bringing new energy and ideas to the School and we are thrilled to have them here to help us strengthen and expand our teaching and research capabilities.

We are also looking forward to the arrival of Tanhum Yoreh in January 2017, joining us as an Assistant Professor in a three-year appointment in the School. He is interested in religious-based environmental concepts and their modern application to behaviour. And two searches are underway for new cross-appointments, one with the Department of Chemistry in toxicological chemistry, and one with the Department of Computer Science in sustainability and climate informatics.

As for new staff, we were joined by Cherryl Bird in a term appointment as Communications and Director's Assistant, replacing Mona El-Haddad, who is on leave. Cherryl has a BA in English and Sociology from U of T, extensive administrative experience, including five years as a Departmental Administrative Assistant in the Faculty of Medicine, and more than 10 years of experience in communications and public affairs, making her ideally suited for this position.

In September 2015, the School hosted the inaugural Beatrice and Arthur Minden Symposium on the Environment, made possible by a major endowment from the Beatrice and Arthur Minden Foundation. About 45 invited participants engaged in two days of discussion on "Taking Action: Achieving Ontario and Canadian Climate Change Goals," providing input into current carbon pricing initiatives, particularly in Ontario. This endowment was also used to establish the Beatrice and Arthur Minden Graduate Research Fellowship, which is intended to support the research activities of our PhD students and was awarded to the first three recipients at our 2016 Research Day.

At the same event, we were also pleased to award the inaugural Alan H. Weatherley Graduate Fellowship in Environmental Leadership, which was made possible by a generous donation from Robena C. Weatherley to honour the memory of her husband and to reflect his life-long commitment to environmental issues. It will be awarded annually to one PhD student enrolled in the School's graduate programs who demonstrates exceptional academic and/or practical leadership in the area of environmental issues.

The School's undergraduate programs continue to thrive, with about 750 students enrolled in our majors, minors, and collaborative programs, and more than 3,000 students taking our courses. The Environmental Studies Major is our most popular offering, while we were excited to see our first cohort of Environmental Science Majors graduate in spring 2016, after we rolled out the new fourth-year Urban Ecology course.

In a two-year pilot project, we offered four new interdisciplinary courses to our students this year, as the Faculty of Arts & Science decided that the School was a natural home for its former first-year Big Ideas courses; all were co-taught by faculty from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.  Two were on Energy and the Environment: a second-year course on Technology and Society, and a third-year course on Economics, Politics and Security. The other two dealt with the Environment and the Digital World; a second-year course, Is the Internet Green?, and a third-year course on Social Media and Environmentalism.  The latter, which was developed by Steve Easterbrook and Miriam Diamond, was highlighted as one of two "cool courses" at U of T in the Maclean's 2016 Canadian Universities Guidebook!

On the graduate front, our Collaborative Programs in Environmental Studies and Environment and Health are also doing well, with about 140 graduate students from more than 25 units enrolled in 2015-16. Particularly notable this year was the increase in enrollment in ENV 1001, Environmental Decision Making, the core course in the Environmental Studies Collaborative Program, which had 51 students.  To cope with the demand for this course, we are offering it in both the fall and spring terms in 2016-17. In spring 2016, John Robinson introduced a new graduate course: The Development of Sustainability Thought. This is a joint course with the Munk School of Global Affairs, and will become JSE 1708 in January 2017.  John is also introducing a new joint undergraduate and graduate special topics course on The U of T Campus as a Living Lab of Sustainability in fall 2016.  We continue to develop the proposal for a new Master of Environment and Sustainability program, with this past year seeing extensive consultations with our graduate faculty, other units, and the Faculty of Arts & Science.

The School is blessed with students who are engaged and passionate about their field of study. For example, the Environmental Students' Union was the driving force behind the installation of a new plaque next to the 1970 Pollution Probe plaque outside Robarts Library and the development of a peer mentorship program this year. Six of our students (chosen from 58 applicants) attended the UNFCCC COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2015, reported daily on the proceedings, and gave an excellent presentation on their return. Meanwhile, the Graduate Students' Environmental Association continues to flourish, organizing a series of successful events, including a screening of Watermark, followed by a lively panel discussion with the film's director.

The School partnered with a number of organizations this year, consistent with our objective of engaging with the wider community. For example, we co-sponsored talks and events with the French Embassy and the Planet in Focus film festival, and brought some of our students to the 2015 Fall Planning Day event held by the City of Toronto Energy and Environment Division.

Our Professional Development Program continues to offer high-quality in-class and distance courses, while the School's Environmental Finance Advisory Committee recruited six new members and had another active year. The Committee opened the Toronto Stock Exchange during the Climate Summit of the Americas and organized several highly successful events, including a panel discussion on sustainable investing at the third annual Willis & White Thought Leadership Event, an evening discussion on carbon finance in Calgary that raised $11,000 for our Skip Willis Undergraduate Scholarship, and a one-day workshop on carbon finance in Toronto that was attended by over 140 people, as well as panels on natural capital, aquaculture, and the Financial Stability Board Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures.

The success of the School of the Environment is due to the contributions of many people in many different ways. I would like to thank everyone who has supported the School over the past year, including our faculty, sessional lecturers, staff, students, alumni, donors, and those with more informal connections. Looking ahead, there is still plenty to do, and I look forward to working with many of you as we strive to further strengthen and expand the School.

 

Kimberly Strong, Director
School of the Environment