Teaching Environmental Management Differently



The subject of Environmental management is both exciting and challenging to teach.

Blending real world experiences in environmental management education is necessary. But it’s often an art as much a science.  Further, you need to complement teaching with discussions and innovative assignments to brew the subject. It has to be a well-designed and executed strategy.

It’s hard to get faculty who could “blend” and “brew” theory with practice. I am writing this post today to make some suggestions and offer ideas.

The world is changing rapidly. Understanding of the environmental science is continuously evolving.

And environmental education needs to reflect on these changes. We may therefore need to teach environmental management differently than what we did some 30 years ago.

And we need to recognize here the power of multi-media, web collaborative, search engines and increasingly smart mobile devices.

Don’t teach in Silos – Emphasize holistic and integrated approach

Earlier, environmental management was taught through topics generally placed in silos. Topics were typical – like air pollution control, wastewater collection, treatment and disposal, solid waste management.

Faculty specialized in each of the silos and did a great job teaching the details. But students rarely got an integrated understanding.  The very interdisciplinary nature of the subject of environmental management requires a “rounded” and “integrated” approach. Details are now available – plentiful and in a variety of forms.

Take for instance, teaching the “subject” of effluent management in an industry. Conventionally, one would teach sub-topics such as sources of effluent generation, effluent characteristics, applicable effluent standards, technology options, economics, case studies etc.  Taking on todays and future perspectives, you may like to ”expand” the sub-topics and bring in a more systems or integrated understanding to the effluent management problem. This may need touching on topics such as air pollution (e.g. due to release of VOCs from aeration tanks), energy optimization, water use reduction, substitution of hazardous substances, elimination of hazardous processes, health & safety of workers at the effluent treatment plant. A feature of resource recovery may help the effluent treatment plant to turn into a profit centre.

To emphasize the importance of such an integrated understanding, I prepared a one slide presentation pasted below showing changing system boundaries.


Teach not by Topics but through Events and Issues

Introducing basics as well as applied aspects can best be done through posing issues. The issues could be structured on tiers such as local, regional, national and global.

Table below provides a sample list of issues picked up from diverse areas that a Professor could build on. Students may be taught how to dissect the issue, carry out research to deepen the understanding, express opinions and share views. A well sequenced stack of issues then becomes the body of the curriculum on environmental management leading to an issue based lecture series


Local Regional National Global
Was CNG substitution the right decision to tackle Delhi’s air pollution? Why do we worry about the protection of Western Ghats Ecosystem? Is Ganga Action Plan the right model to address India’s River Water Quality Management Problem? How can strategy of producing Low Carbon Goods and Services help India to meet its voluntary commitments to GHG emission reduction and be competitive in the market?

Blend and Brew the learnings through innovative assignments

Information in the environmental domain is dynamic over time. Data, Hypothesis, Evidences, Convictions and Learnings keep on changing as we go along. Research must be a key ingredient of the assignments. A Professor will need to devise class assignments and group work accordingly.

Students may be asked to undertake specific literature review (e.g. state of the art), conduct interviews of some leading and inspiring personalities (for understanding trends and perspectives) and carry out field work (where you show students the interface with “practice”).

The assignments in the subject of “water management” on the issue of arsenic contamination could be

  • Prepare a State of Art review of treatment of Arsenic in groundwater
  • Do a Skype interview with Prof Prosun Bhattacharya of KTH in Sweden on his work on Arsenic Removal
  • Visit the ARUBA arsenic removal plant implemented by Dr Ashok Gadgil of Berkeley and prepare a field note

In a class of 30 students, such blended assignments could be given on 15 topics (two students working together). A two day seminar/roundtable event will help the class to understand the “dynamics” of 30 key issues on water. I would place at least 30% of the class engagement on research based teaching and assignments.  In the evaluation of the assignments, I would highly recommend a Peer Assessment approach that involves both students and the externals.

Use Flipped Classrooms to promote Active Learning

The traditional pattern of teaching has been to give students the task of reading textbooks and work on problem, while listening to lectures and taking tests in class. In flip teaching, the students first study the topic by themselves, typically using video lessons prepared by the Professor or third parties. In class, students apply the knowledge by solving problems or discussing issues and doing practical work (assignments).

So a Professor will video record presentations for instance on modelling fate of pollutants and point key resources (publications and software tools). The students are expected to go through this material prior coming to the classroom. The details are thus left outside the classroom. In the class, the Professor fields the questions, clarifies the doubts and presents some landmark application of models which have led to important decision making.

In flip method, the Professor thus tutors the students when they become stuck, rather than imparting the initial lesson in person. Further, students can also help each other, a process that benefits both the advanced and less advanced learners.

Flip teaching promotes active learning. Research shows that active learning improves students’ understanding and retention of information and can be very effective in developing higher order cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. The essence of the flipped classroom is to shift from passive to active learning where the learning process is more visible, reflexive, collaborative and engages students in critical thinking. Active learning is extremely critical for building understanding and skills on environmental management.

Envelop your course, set up collaborative – crossing geographical boundaries

The subject of environmental management is highly contextual. Ecosystems we live and manage have a spatial specificity which we simply cannot ignore.   To understand the mosaic, we need global, regional and national perspectives. Knowing about how crisis on water is addressed in the African continent and in the Middle East is important for a student studying in Tamil Nadu in India. Environmental education must therefore operate on a “spatial collaborative”.

Management of environment involves diverse stakeholders both in terms of scale (local, regional, national and global) and characteristics (business, community, government). It is essentially a people oriented, nature (resource) based political science.

We will need to use the web platforms cleverly to achieve this objective.  A Professor should therefore envelop the course with a web collaborative by inviting colleagues from other academic institutions and practice representing different geographies to contribute to the course. These invited experts could play role as content contributors, peers/mentors to students.   There are several web based collaborative tools available today – many of these are free.

I am personally very keen that we work together to discuss some of these ideas- may be through workshops – and build capacity of Professors in environmental management. Do write to me if anyone interested to chip in and help.

Image sourced from http://www.clipartlord.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/professor3.png



  1. Very well-articulated Dr. Modak.

    Environmental management as a subject needs a different approach for teaching and the approaches discussed looks path breaking in the Indian context of university teaching. The disconnect between the university and the practice could be one of the reason. Secondly the research element in the Indian universities today in this subject, more often than not, lacks practical application. As a result, in most of the students coming out from the universities today we find a lack of understanding about the developments in the field and they need to be ‘coached’ on the job. Not something the job providers cherish.

  2. Agree with Shantanu’s comment. I am of the opinion that the approach outlined in the post could be used in the IITs, NITIE and other institutes of a similar level where students as well as faculty are well positioned to execute this model. In most other institutes like colleges affiliated to the University of Mumbai for example, it would be necessary to perhaps do this in a phased manner. For these institutes a lot of capacity building would be required especially for faculty.

  3. A well thought blog. I concur with you on the need to evolve a holistic approach in the academic curriculum. But to the best of my knowledge Environmental management is not “TAUGHT” in any of the academic institutions. We generally have a environmental science/engineering program depending on science/ technology institute. Most management schools have not found environmental management relevant. Given their backgrounds, it’s difficult to expect these faculty to have a holistic view of the environment. The priorities and expectations of the faculty and students also are making them remain in silos in which they are comfortable. But when the real world challenges confront them they are not able to cope up. But before we can do anything in this regard, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap between physical sciences/technology groups and the social sciences group. It’ll be nice to have a wider discussion among all to know what should go into a environmental management program.

    1. You are right Professor. Environmental Management as a subject and as a course is not taught. Thats a concern. I would float on this blog a draft curriculum for discussions and would be grateful if you share ideas and provide inputs. The book I am working on right now is on Environmental Management. Regards

  4. Prasad,

    Very well put together.

    Though it might require some effort for me to switch over completely.

    I would like to learn by attending such sessions where this type of innovative approach is adopted.

    To start with, the best way is to attend as many educational/training sessions in Mumbai where you are involved.

    Your blog is very motivating for the trainers/teachers in the environmental field.

    Thanks again for sparing efforts and time and addressing such issues regularly.

  5. Dear Prasad
    While agreeing with Blog, I should share the experience of integrated teaching that can happen with blend of Industrial Projects and Various theories on environment management- as brought out in Blog.
    With classical example raised on Local Issue and relevance of CNG for Delhi Air Pollution, I extend the case and explain ‘how SC Directive was short-term right and long-term not sustainable’ etc. by explaining how Buses in Developed countries in Europe etc. still operate on ULSD and non on CNG and how Private Sector Refineries are operating their business producing ULSD and exporting it and we keep on imorting CNG- with its import carbon footprint etc. This approach interests students and I feel good!!

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