Above the Waterline: Learning to adapt in a pandemic – now and in the future

Sally Bethea with her first water resources planning class at Georgia Tech in 2015.

When I retired from Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, nearly six years ago, I began teaching a water resources class every fall to graduate students in the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech, where I earned my master’s forty years ago. That degree helped launch my career in water policy, culminating in a satisfying, twenty-year position leading the only nonprofit advocacy organization focused solely on protecting the Chattahoochee River.

One of my goals has been to pass on some of the “real-world” lessons that I learned over the years to my planning and engineering students, hoping these lessons may prove useful. For at least some of the fifty-plus students I have taught, I believe that this has been the case. In truth, I have gotten as much, if not more, in return, as the students asked tough questions about the changing environmental issues that face our communities and planet. They have challenged me to think more deeply and try to communicate more clearly; their enthusiasm and desire to make the world a better place has never failed to sustain me, as I worked to make my lectures as interactive and interesting as possible.

The fall of 2020 will be very different. Instead of teaching a group of ten or so students in a comfortable room with windows along one entire wall and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, I will have to somehow engage these bright young people through the screen on my home computer, at least for the foreseeable future. My most successful classes, to date, have been those in which the students’ energy and my responses created a feed-back loop of sorts, keeping all of us focused on a particular topic. How will I be able to do this effectively, when we must communicate at a distance?

How will I read non-verbal cues from the students that, in the past, have helped guide my lectures and our discussions? Are there best practices of virtual teaching to help me grab and keep the attention of distracted students? As the Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us, the ability to adapt is critical: embracing new ways of achieving goals, both personally and professionally.

With one small group of students to co-teach a new (to me) environmental management class this fall, I know that my challenges will be insignificant compared to those facing teachers in schools across the country who must manage many more classes and students: teaching and grappling with issues related to the pandemic, including unsafe working conditions, along with life’s other uncertainties. I’ve been thinking a lot about my younger son, Robert, who teaches English at a large school in San Diego; I’m confident that his creativity, resourcefulness and ability to deal with changing circumstances will help him get through these difficult times. But I still worry about both of us – and all teachers.

Changing circumstances. Adaptation. Do we demand that our lives and activities remain as close to “normal” (whatever that is) as possible, defiantly refusing to acknowledge the change that is obviously taking place around us? Some predict that future pandemics will be more frequent and spread more rapidly, unless we stop the widespread destruction of our environment: rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining, the exploitation of wild species and more. The current pandemic is not likely a one-off.

Do we find ways to thrive, not just survive, by embracing reliable scientific knowledge, by electing and supporting leaders unafraid of making hard decisions, and by investing as heavily as necessary in pandemic mitigation and adaptation? This type of quandary has, of course, been taking place on the planetary level for decades with climate change. The majority of the people in our country are finally demanding that climate action be taken now. Will Big Oil and Wall Street listen and voluntarily adapt to change their ways – or find themselves forced to alter their business-as-usual approach?

At the end of July, Canada’s last intact ice shelf – the 4,000-year-old Milne Ice Shelf – collapsed, breaking into huge “iceberg islands.” The melting was caused by hotter air above and warmer water below, according to a glaciologist who said, “Without a doubt, it’s climate change.” Last year, fifteen extreme weather disasters caused at least a billion dollars in damage each and seven of them cost much more: California wildfires ($25 billion), Typhoon Hagibis in Japan ($15 billion), and flooding in the American Midwest ($12.5 billion) – all events exacerbated by climate change, according to scientists.

In 2018, Georgia Tech launched its Global Change Program, designed to coordinate and grow education and research activities that create positive change: solutions and economic opportunities at the intersection of global change, climate change and energy. Planning and engineering students at the university are readying themselves with information and strategies to help communities grapple with the impacts of climate change that are already observed – and those that will come.

The students will need all the tools in the proverbial toolbox to help communities thrive and embrace changing circumstances, be they related to pandemics, global warming or other issues. My hope is to inspire them to seek new ways to build their toolboxes – to be resilient and resourceful in the face of uncomfortable and, in many cases, frightening change.

To do that, I will first need to overcome my own trepidation about online teaching. Instead of complaining about how hard and different it will be, I’ve decided to learn about any creative approaches that will make remote learning as meaningful and satisfying as possible for all participants. I am learning to adapt.

 

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown. 

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