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Climate Change and Me marks Wits’ largest first-year course in its history

- Wits University

Climate Change and Me was launched in 2022 and became the largest course by student numbers ever offered at Wits University.

Climate change, says Professor Diane Grayson, senior director of academic affairs at Wits University, is a complex, rather than a complicated issue. This means that solving one of humanity's greatest existential threats can't be done linearly, nor by breaking the problem down into manageable pieces. "Complex challenges, like climate change, require interconnected, interdisciplinary approaches," says Grayson.

Climate change, caused and mitigated by a set of systems in a larger network, was therefore the perfect subject choice as a "shared intellectual activity" for all first-year Wits students, no matter their chosen discipline. In 2022, 7235 students took the Climate Change and Me course, which was part of a more extensive and compulsory academic and student life orientation programme – The Gateway to Success. Climate Change and Me was launched in 2022 and became the largest course by student numbers ever offered at Wits University.

"Everyone accepts that we're facing a climate emergency. This generation of young people have an enormous weight on their shoulders in helping to ensure that the earth remains habitable for homo sapiens. It is imperative that all young people understand what is happening to the earth and what they as individuals can do. It needn’t feel overwhelming," says Grayson, who drove the development of the course.

Weaving critical academic skills with real-world challenges

Excellent and meaningful curriculum design is necessary in the wake of Covid-19 and emergency remote online teaching and learning. Knowledge about a pressing and universal topic was interwoven with key academic skills such as academic writing and critical thinking in the Climate Change and Me course in order to give students a solid foundation for their first year of tertiary education. Other skills developed included paraphrasing, note-taking, reading for understanding, organising course content, using Ulwazi (the university’s learning management system), and correct academic referencing.  

Mauro Lourenco, a PhD candidate in the School of Geography, Archaelogy and Environmental Studies at Wits who co-designed and taught the course, explains that 116 writing fellows were involved with providing feedback to students regarding their writing and helping them stay on task

The Climate Change and Me course is also unique in that it is an approved short course at Wits, requiring 25 hours of student engagement. It is also one of the few truly online courses that was designed with flexibility in mind: its fully asynchronous nature means that materials can be accessed at any time.

Lourenco says that being an effective digital learner requires that “students…(are) able to use the learning management system effectively… The online mode of provision also provides students with the flexibility to learn anytime, anywhere, which is particularly valuable for new students who may have a number of logistical challenges to attend to before the formal academic year begins. 

A shared intellectual experience deepens belonging and overall student success

"There are many universities in the world where first-year students have a common intellectual experience, and there is research to show that it contributes to a student's overall success in the university environment," notes Grayson.

A shared intellectual experience allows students to feel a sense of belonging, and not only socially but also through structured academic engagements.”

The Climate Change and Me course improves awareness of one of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century for Wits students and embraces interdisciplinarity, in line with the Wits commitment to engender a concern for social justice and the dignity of all people, and awareness that development must be environmentally sustainable.

The appointment of Professor Imraan Valodia as Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality in March 2022 is a critical move by Wits University to prioritise climate change and its effects. This is central in the university’s strategic framework for 2033.

A blog competition was the final component of the Climate Change and Me course with six winning entries, each receiving a book prize.

Excerpts from the winning blogs:

  • Finn Vinckers - “Day Zero was the first time I felt climate dread. An impending, unavoidable doom that felt so far away just a few years ago and now the shadowy colossus peers over the mountain and hangs it’s head low as if, it too, is embarrassed by its early arrival”
  • Sarah Rashid – “Greta Thunberg is overrated. Now don’t get me wrong, I do consider myself an environmentalist and I do my fair share of helping the environment; naturally (haha), environmental activism is an important form of social awareness to me. I am also not discrediting Greta for her amazing achievements, not at all. She is a solid example of a young person taking big steps to help solve the climate crisis. I just think we have so many more examples, more inspiring, more empowering examples of youth trying to solve the climate crisis”
  • Atiya Chetty – “We need to create a new narrative. A less naïve one that holds the biggest emission contributors accountable, as well as the politicians and governments that allow for the blatant destruction of our planet. We need to create systemic changes in technology, politics, and the economy, by influencing the people at the core of these systems”
  • Ydhan Naidoo – “Humanity discovered carbon-based technology, used it to transform all of human society in the largest technological revolution in history, discovered that said technology was leading to a dramatic change in climate (due to greenhouse gas emissions trapping excess heat), stepped back and said: ‘Yes. I will continue to destroy myself to have cheap products’.”