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.
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
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.
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
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 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 theyre 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.
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.
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 analytic Chemistry
Environment, Nutrition and Life Quality
The New Environmental Legislation
Management and Analysis of Risks
Environmental Concepts on Conservation
Biological Processes in Water Treatment
Integral Management of Biological - Infectious Waste
Management of Hazardous Materials and Wastes
Environment and International Relations
Ecology and Forest Resources Management
Ecotourism and rural Tourism
Soil and Aquifer Bioremediation
Mass Media and the Environment
Management and Disposal of Hazardous Waste
Effects of Atmospheric Pollutants in Health
Industrial Residual Waters.
M. E. Leal coordinates PUMAs Environmental Education program.
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