Environmental Problem-Solving and Consulting

January 26, 2001


In ENVS 204, you go beyond identifying environmental problems to actually focusing on solutions. This takes two forms: (1) Who: becoming familiar with, learning from, and celebrating individuals and groups who have themselves achieved success at solving environmental problems, and who are thus role models or examples for others to follow or emulate, and (2) How: as part of a 3-5 person interdisciplinary consulting group/team/task force, applying problem-solving skills to real-world environmental problems and thereby helping a real client in need.
College seniors examining global environmental issues are often overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems and feel that the issues are so complex that there is little or nothing they can do about them. I seek to overcome these feelings of lack of control, despair, paralysis, apathy, inaction, doom and gloom, confusion, powerlessness, and helplessness by having you think globally and act locally. Action at the local level is often the first step toward a solution to global environmental issues. This course attempts to empower you to make a difference, to do something about the global environmental problems, by acting at the local level … but only after you have first focused on where you want to be as an individual and member of society and how you want to get there. To that end, we examine change strategies for creating sustainable communities, for bridging the gap between our utopian visions and the harsh present-day environmental realities, for getting from where we are to where we would like to be.


(1) Become familiar with and employ interdisciplinary group problem-solving skills in solving a real-world environmental problem for a real client.
(2) Employ “Writing Across the Curriculum” approaches to improve thinking and writing skills and powers of reflection.
(3) Gain insights and advice and suggestions from interesting guest speakers.
(4) Gain exposure to cutting edge ideas in Environmental Studies through reading and discussing and writing about stimulating books.
(5) Apply the subject matter of this course to your personal life, to your own future.

Explanation of the rationale behind the various elements emphasized in this course gives you a better understanding for why it is designed and carried out as it is.

Why problem-solving? You’ll be doing it plenty once you leave here, and the better prepared you are to do it, the better off you’ll be. In the past, I have found that successfully solving problems has empowered students and enhanced their sense of self-confidence and personal efficacy.

Why groups? Increasingly, the modus operandi of environmental practitioners is as part of cooperative interdisciplinary problem-solving teams, yet most of your education has probably emphasized atomistic, individual, competitive efforts. Groups can provide a sense of belonging and intimacy, of being part of a learning community.

Why real clients? They need all the help they can get. They will be a lot like real clients you might have if you go to work for a consulting firm once you get out of UVM. Your college education should give you not only knowledge and skills for creating desirable futures, but also motivation and inspiration to contribute, to give back to society, when you get out of college. In the past, several students have found their contacts with clients have led directly to part or full-time employment after graduation.

Why a limited scope to your term project? It is important to experience success when first seeking to create desirable futures, in order to gain sufficient confidence to continue and expand your efforts. To enjoy success in a very limited time span –about three months– it is essential to reduce the scope of your term project to a manageable level.


The course is conducted as a seminar. Groups discussion of the readings and assignments constitutes the structure for most of the class discussions, although there are occasionally lectures, guest speaker Presentations individual and group presentations, etc., as well. Active participation by all class members (including raising questions related to reading assignments) is essential for the class to be a success.

To derive maximum benefit from the course, it is essential that you: (1) complete the assigned readings in advance of class; and (2) allow time for reflecting on what you read (journal entries will help in this regard). Some readings on reserve in the library or available as photocopied handouts offer advice and numerous problem-solving techniques to assist your consulting group:

Bransford, John D., and Barry S. Stein, The Ideal Problem Solver: A Guide for Improving Thinking, Learning, and Creativity (Freeman, 1984).
Committee on the Application of Ecological Theory to Environmental Problems, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council, Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Problem Solving (National Academy Press, 1986).
Van Gundy, Arthur B., Techniques of Structured Problem Solving (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988).

Other readings, available at the bookstore, do not explicitly address environmental problem-solving and consulting, but expose you to cutting-edge ideas in Environmental Studies. In the past, students have appreciated the opportunity to read and discuss stimulating books while working on their projects.

Specific journal-writing exercises are given in class and as homework assignments. They relate to the group project, the readings, the guest speakers. They are intended to help you process and incorporate your own ideas and to reflect on the ideas of others.

D. GUEST SPEAKERS: Each semester, I invite about six UVM Environmental Program alumni/ae, environmental professionals, environmental activists, UVM faculty, community members, and other guest speakers to come into the class to talk about what they are doing and how they got where they are now, and to offer advice (What would they do differently if they could do it all over again?; if only they knew then what they do now, etc.). You may wish to consider their presentations as case studies, as the speakers tell about real environmental problems they are dealing with at the time, the problem-solving strategies they employ(ed), and the outcomes. In the past, such guest speakers have served as role models or exemplars for the students to follow or emulate. Students felt they learned much from those who had gone before them, both from their successes and their “failures” (learning opportunities); they appreciated the inspiration, encouragement, and fresh ideas these guest speakers provided.


The project provides a real-world opportunity to apply problem-solving skills to a complex (higher-order) environmental problem by a deadline –thereby gaining a better understanding of that issue– and to help a real client (agency or organization or business) in need. This hands-on, learn-by-doing project will hopefully strengthen all four skills involved in effective problem-solving (creative thinking, critical thinking, intelligible management, and good communication) and will help you integrate them with better results.
Problem-solving techniques are presented in class and readings – by the instructor, guest speakers, and student teams; in addition, in class you are presented with hypothetical situations in which you apply what you are learning about problem-solving. The techniques are drawn from the military, big business, and the environmental field; and from such academic disciplines as Engineering, Environmental Science, and parapsychology. Beyond techniques normally thought of as problem- solving, I also include skills I learned once I was on the job– either as a university professor or as a consultant, and that I wish some one had taught me in college or graduate school. Some of those (e.g., working in groups, facilitating effective meetings, problem identification and definition, management skills, organizational skills, time management, writing a group document, making oral presentations) are offered every semester; others, as they are needed by groups to Complete their projects.

Topics are chosen to provide relevant field experience and –most importantly– to be of real value to the community- As you apply techniques to your environmental problems as professional environmental consultants (interdisciplinary consulting groups/teams/task forces), I will emphasize process and approach – how you are doing what you are doing and why; and will offer a Generalized Methodology for Solving Environmental problems for your consulting team to utilize (I believe that having a structure to fall back on and using a systematic approach actually allows you to be more creative in solving environmental problems). I will devote much class time to helping you with your project, and expect a high-quality, genuinely-useful, professional product – delivered on time. Members of each group share the same grade for their work. During the last two weeks of the class, each group makes an oral presentation to the rest of the class and to clients, and each member must participate in some way in that presentation. Clients and community members are invited to the presentations, and most clients come.

Criteria used in developing this project include:

    • students have a first-hand experience in higher-order problem-solving in an in-depth study.
    • 3-5 person group, where each person is a contributing member; the group works cooperatively, and each member experiences leading as well as being a good follower.
    • students interact with and provide a tangible benefit to “realworld” client in the community outside the university.
    • students orally present their findings to the rest of the class.

    Some projects require as a prerequisite at least one of the group members to have taken a specific course (e.g., Environmental Education, Environmental Interpretation, Environmental Design, Environmental Economics, Environmental Policy, Environmental Law, Natural Resource Planning Theory and Techniques, etc.) to gain specific skills necessary to implement the task.
    Several journal-writing exercises (most employing application of problem-solving techniques to your problem) help keep you on schedule. Do not miss deadlines. No exceptions and no negotiations. Materials turned in late will not be accepted!
    Following is the time-frame, within a 15-week semester, used in addressing the environmental problem:

    Week 1:

      • identification of project topic and team members

    Week 2:

      • signed agreement form to client after initial consultation with and charging by client

    Week 5:

      • progress report

    Week 6:

      • presentation of “mock-up” of the desired final product to client and gaining feedback from client before actually collecting data

    Week 11:

      • completion of first draft of report

    Week 13:

      • completion of final, polished report; presentation of final, polished report to client; rehearsal of oral presentation.

    Weeks 14 and 15:

      oral project presentations in class; critiques by fellow course participants and instructor(s); evaluation of process; evaluation by client.

    Devise a plan for your “life after UVM.” The plan should emphasize your hopes and dreams and aspirations in the next ten years, but not be confined exclusively to that period.

    Utilize as many problem solving techniques as possible in devising your plan. Mention some of the approaches or techniques that you found most helpful.
    Speculate on the differences (if any) between this plan and a plan you might have written without having ever taken this course in Environmental Problem-Solving.
    The plan should be typed, of course. There is no specific page limit … but make the paper the length you feel is necessary to concisely state what you plan to do after you leave UVM.

    G. GRADING: Grades are based on:
    Task (% of total grade)
    Active class participation-10%
    Journal- 20%
    “Life after UVM” paper- 15%
    Term project
    Final polished report- 50%
    Oral presentation in class- 5%

    TOTAL- 100%

    School: University of Vermont
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