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ULSF | Association of University Leaders For A Sustainable Future

Volume 2, Number 1 : Winter 1998

Curriculum: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico Offers Environmental Specialization Courses

by Marina E. Leal

Environmental problems in Mexico, as in other parts of the world, have become a priority at various academic institutions. Being Mexico´s largest university (with over 32,000 academics, and a yearly admission of about 70,000 new students), the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) has an enormous influence on a very large and diverse population. UNAM has traditionally promoted the study of the effects of human development on the environment. In November, 1991, UNAM created the Programa Universitario de Medio Ambiente (PUMA). PUMA's main objectives are to support, promote and implement activities oriented toward environmental research and an environmental "culture" in the different areas that make up the UNAM. PUMA also promotes the interaction of academic groups both within the University and with other sectors in society such as the government, industries, other universities, and NGO's both inside and outside of the country.

In order to meet its objectives, PUMA began by identifying the groups within the University that are committed to addressing environmental needs. Over 250 teams were identified in 1994. This has helped us to determine which areas are given more attention and which should be further supported, and to promote collaboration among groups that are working on the same issues. It has also allowed us to follow and disseminate the progress of these activities to obtain funds for specific projects.

PUMA Activities

One important role of PUMA is to publicize environmental information throughout the University and within certain social sectors. This occurs in two ways: first, we organize a series of "academic events" about different topics in which national and international experts present and discuss the most recent insights in their fields. These events are open to the general public and are generally free. We have so far organized the following events: Mexico's Environmental Situation, Hazardous Waste (two different events), Health and the Environment, Recycling (two different events), Environmental Management in Communities, Food Industry and the Environment, and Evaluation of Environmental Education. In October, 1997, we held a congress called Habitat Destruction, during which we analyzed the most relevant human factors that contribute to the destruction of habitats both in Mexico and in the world. The second way PUMA disseminates information is by publishing a regular newspaper and bulletin, as well as a "memoir" on each of our academic events. These publications promote an understanding of environmental conditions by presenting problems in a context that makes them significant to our readers. In this way we hope to gain the participation of students, faculty, staff and administration in environmental activities. Reaching top administrators is particularly important since they tend to be least involved in environmental efforts. These publications are designed and developed mostly by students from different schools and departments who carry out their social service work or write their theses in connection with PUMA.

Postgraduate students, who administer assessments as part of their Masters theses, have evaluated the impact of these publications. While our readers are generally positive, the assessments have helped us modify certain features in order to improve them (i.e. starting new sections, and adding tables, charts etc.).

PUMA's efforts are also aimed at bringing specialists to the different environmental disciplines and supporting a series of courses in these areas. Since the environmental movement in Mexico has a shorter history than in many other countries, the need for specialists in environmental studies is still considerable. Most of our major areas of study (both undergraduate and professional) do not offer courses on environmental issues. In cases where they are offered, they are not required (such as the “optional” course on Environmental Education in the Pedagogy and Biology departments). PUMA has therefore carried out a series of specialization courses on different topics over the last five years (for 1997, 26 different courses were scheduled; see box).

The course initiative was designed in large part by using results from PUMA's initial investigation of university groups who were addressing environmental issues (mentioned above). That information allowed us to analyze which environmental areas were of greatest interest to the university community and which were least explored. PUMA decided to design and implement training and specialization courses in order to meet both stated desires and needs.

Course Structure

PUMA focuses on five areas of study: health, chemistry, engineering, ecology and environmental education. In each of these areas there is an average of five courses per year. Coordinators for each subject identify potential course topics and establish goals, aims and target audiences. S/he then writes the first draft of a syllabus and identifies a highly qualified specialist on the topic who will function as an "external course coordinator." Together, both coordinators design the final syllabus, and select the most adequate teachers for each part of the course. The teachers typically belong to different disciplines and institutions, both within and outside the UNAM, and come from different social sectors (academia, government, NGO's and industry). Thus they provide courses with a variety of insights and perspectives. The coordinating team and teachers work together on the final details of curriculum planning, as well as on the selection of support materials and supplies for students.

Each course is offered once a year and advertised both inside and outside the University. Courses range from 40 to 80 hours and are typically taught in the space of one or two weeks during the academic semester. Courses are evaluated by the students, teachers and coordinators (who frequently participate as teachers too).

Course content and assignments vary significantly. "Environment, Nutrition and Quality of Life," for example, is conceived as a basic course aimed at any person who is interested in diet, nutrition, health and the environment. It contrasts the multiple risks of an inadequate diet with the benefits of a healthy one. The "Environmental Education"(EE) course analyzes various aspects of environmental education, such as its conception, development and potential impact on the community. It also examines different pedagogical methodologies designed to teach about the environment. This course offers guidelines on how to plan and evaluate environmental education programs: for example, student teams design and present programs to the whole class at the end of the course. Students team up with colleagues who have similar interests or are working with the same target audiences. When the course finishes, everyone has a project which could be applicable in their workplace (i.e. an educational program aimed at suburban, semi-rural, or lower class women, or at high-school level teachers etc).

The Students

The students targeted for each course vary with the topic. Most courses are designed for professionals or students who have some previous knowledge of the subject but want to know more. However, in some cases those who participate have little or no experience. Courses typically include university students (UNAM and other Mexican universities), people from various government offices, NGO's, industry, and in some cases, the private sector. For example, the Environmental Education course this year included high-school teachers seeking to bring environmental issues into their classes, housewives wanting to promote environmental activities in their neighborhoods, and social workers and nuns working to improve the quality of life in their communities. We have found that the participation of people with such different interests and experiences enriches the content and outcome of these courses. In 1995 and 1996 we had the total participation of 498 teachers and 1082 students in PUMA courses.

Luz María Méndez, a nun who works with school children and lower class communities, notes that “PUMA courses are good because they’re applicable to our everyday activities. I think some of them could be organized as workshop series in order to deepen what we learn.” Yasmin Solis, a pedagogy student, says “PUMA courses are very good because they encourage both teachers and students to analyze the issues and propose solutions to the problems. I think the courses should be more publicized to attract a wider audience.”

One of the most significant outcomes of a 1995 Environmental Education course for high-school teachers was a strategy to organize the "First Encounter of Youth and Environment." In this event, high-school students involved in environmental activities in their schools came together to share their experiences and discuss the impact of their work. Eighty-four different teams of students from Mexico City presented their projects to an audience of 300 during the First Encounter. Due to the success of that first experience, the same team organized a "Second Encounter of Youth and Environment" in 1997. In this case, the response was even greater: over 130 projects were proposed (due to logistical restrictions, however, only 90 of them were presented) and nearly 600 high-school students from different parts of the country participated.

Challenges

PUMA courses on environmental topics have had considerable success despite two notable obstacles. First, we have a funding problem. For every course we charge a relatively low enrollment fee which varies according to the number of hours it involves. Courses are also partially funded by a one-time donation from Cemex, a private industrial corporation. The money from these two sources is just enough to cover our costs. Our financial struggles were exacerbated in 1995 and 1996 when the number of students attending PUMA courses dropped substantially due to Mexico's severe economic crisis. Fortunately, student enrollment in 1997 has come up again.

Second, PUMA's educational initiative faces a lack of interest on the part of both private enterprises and academic institutions in the environmental training of their personnel. We have found that in certain cases these institutions will not give their workers permission to participate in the courses, or if permission is given they will not cover the enrollment fees. Of course, the fact that almost no university department or professional school includes mandatory environmental courses is a serious impediment to getting both teachers and students involved in this kind of curriculum planning. As a result, PUMA is encouraging academic departments to include and require environmental courses. It is also trying to foster awareness among decision-makers from different social sectors of the importance of environmental issues in development.

Progress

Through feedback from students and other data, we have started to give PUMA's environmental courses a stronger practical orientation. Until recently our courses have emphasized a theoretical perspective. While some courses, such as Ecotourism and Integral Management of Biological-Infectious Wastes, include field trips and exercises in which the students actually put into practice what they learn, we are finding that the need for this is greater than we thought. Given the immediate environmental problems that Mexico faces, people are eager to learn what must be done, and how to do it. These considerations are part of the planning for PUMA's 1998 curriculum. We hope that with greater practical insight students will be better trained to face the multiple demands of environmental action in Mexico and more prepared for immediate action.

1997 PUMA Course Offerings:
Environmental economics
Environmental analytic Chemistry
Environmental Pollution
Environment, Nutrition and Life Quality
The New Environmental Legislation
Environmental Education
Management and Analysis of Risks
Environmental Concepts on Conservation
Environmental Management
Environmental Impact
Biological Processes in Water Treatment
Integral Management of Biological - Infectious Waste
Sustainable Development
Management of Hazardous Materials and Wastes
Environmental Psychology
Environment and International Relations
Ecology and Forest Resources Management
Hazardous Materials
Ecotourism and rural Tourism
Water Pollution
Soil and Aquifer Bioremediation
Mass Media and the Environment
Management and Disposal of Hazardous Waste
Ecological Restoration
Effects of Atmospheric Pollutants in Health
Industrial Residual Waters.

M. E. Leal coordinates PUMA’s Environmental Education program.

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