UAF course gives new look to climate change curriculum

June 27, 2018

Marissa Carl-Acosta

The University of Alaska Fairbanks, renowned for its research on climate change, is expanding those efforts in an unexpected direction — its sociology program.

The first Gender and Climate Change course was offered this spring. Many of the students, 14 who represented both the natural and social sciences, enrolled in the class because they couldn’t imagine how gender and climate change were connected, said Maureen Biermann, who developed and taught the online course.

The Gender and Climate Change course focused on how gender shapes our experiences of climate change in terms of how we understand the science, our actual contributions to the causes of climate change and how we experience it.

“For example, research shows that people who fall outside of the gender binary — who don’t fall into the clear male, female categories that we historically use to structure our society — these people tend to be more at risk following major climate events like hurricanes,” Biermann said. “Things that turn into disasters disproportionately affect those in the LGBTQ community.”

Gender’s relationship to climate change has been on the radar in academia for at least 15 years but has tended to focus on women’s experiences. Many aspects, including research on LGBTQ communities and men, are still underexplored.

An important byproduct of this course was an annotated bibliography of all the literature students could find relating to LGBTQ experiences and climate change. Community organizations also spent a day with the class to brainstorm how they could better understand the issues within Fairbanks, possible solutions and implications.

“We removed that barrier between the classroom and the broader community,” said Biermann, who received a Community Engaged Learning Award grant from Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity to help with the community collaboration. “The students began thinking about themselves as community members… as people who live in a place and can actively participate in shaping how that place and their community look.”

Though there was a strong emphasis on Fairbanks, Biermann’s students were located throughout the country. She used Flipgrid, an online video discussion board, to participate in conversations.

“From the get-go, it created a culture of openness and really listening to each other that doesn’t necessarily exist within a traditional classroom, because there’s always a couple people who tend to dominate conversation and people who tend to hang back,” said Biermann, who required students to watch each others’ videos as well as post their own. “They had excellent dialogue and it really helped this class to work so well.”

Biermann is using feedback and insights from this student group to improve Gender and Climate Change for the next time it’s taught. She is also currently developing Climate Change and Society, which the Sociology Department is planning to offer online in fall 2019.  

Sociology is available as a fully online minor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In the following videos, students in Gender and Climate Change discuss the course and some of the issues it raised:


Meet student Annie Looman and hear her talk about why she enrolled:

Watch an excerpt of student Chad Fullmer’s final presentation, specifically his new opinion of the Stafford Act:

Listen to a conversation between students Stephen Greenlaw and Nauri Toler about decolonization: