Faculty Spotlight: Jenna Munson

Outreach Program Specialist and Lecturer in Earth and Environmental Sciences, Founder and Coordinator of Earth Camp

Spotlight on EARTH 115: The Science Behind Michigan’s Environmental Justice Issues and EARTH 380: Natural Resources, Economics, and the Environment

At a time when young people of all backgrounds are passionate about addressing climate change, Jenna Munson is an educator and mentor who equips students with the scientific tools to tackle these issues effectively. With a PhD from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Munson first got involved with the University of Michigan Earth and Environmental Sciences department when she proposed the program that would become Earth Camp. She recalls noticing that the students in Earth Science tended to be white, upper middle class, and cite family trips to national parks and weekend hikes as their inspiration to declare the major. In response, she knew “that it was really important to make an effort to diversify the Earth department” and devised a summer science program for high school students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. For over a decade, Earth Camp has recruited talented students and provided them with mentorship, field experience, and exciting travel opportunities as the cohorts embark on a three-summer adventure. 

Participants spend their first summer at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, swimming and exploring the national lakeshore while practicing real science – the group takes measurements and creates a bathymetric map. “That’s something that actual scientists would do, but we’re doing it in our swimsuits on the shores of Lake Michigan, we’re having fun, and it’s introducing environmental science and Earth science to students,” Munson notes, underscoring the value of this first summer experience for students. The next year, the same students travel to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to explore and learn about geology in locations including Mackinac Island and Pictured Rocks. Finally, the third-year trip takes students to the University of Michigan’s Camp Davis Field Station in Jackson, Wyoming. This “capstone experience” exposes students to a completely new environment and shows them what an actual geological field station looks like. The program has been successful, with most participants continuing to study science in college. Many of them have been recruited to apply to and attend UM, where the Earth Camp team connects them with faculty to provide research opportunities and mentorship throughout their undergraduate experience. 

Munson’s work with Earth Camp exemplifies her passion for meeting students where they are and teaching them about the power of science as a tool for creating change. She recalls that, with increasing frequency, she began talking to Earth Camp students who wanted to focus on environmental justice advocacy in their careers. While she underscores that “there is a lot of need for and space for activists and community organizers,” she tells students that marginalized communities also need scientists who can “sound the alarm bells” when problems arise, citing the tragic example of the Flint water crisis and the importance of scientists and physicians in uncovering the problem. In response, students often broaden their idea of what “activism” looks like in practice. 

Similarly, Munson reports that her course EARTH 380: Natural Resources, Economics, and the Environment consistently prompts students from diverse majors and backgrounds to reevaluate their beliefs about sustainability. In EARTH 380, Munson defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the current generation, maintaining the standard of living in some parts of the world, and increasing it for other parts of the world in a way that minimizes environmental degradation.” This definition reveals one of the main tensions between this definition of sustainability and the more traditional idea of “environmentalism” – to increase the standard of living for billions of people, “we absolutely have to extract resources.” Students are often surprised that Munson is actually “pro resource extraction,” but by the end of EARTH 380, this pragmatic approach ends up being quite revelatory for many in the class. For those who want to play a role in the clean energy transition or address climate change, the continuous necessity of natural resources grants power to those working on their extraction. As a result, some of her EARTH 380 students switch their major, intended career, or internship search to focus on energy companies. 

As she was teaching EARTH 380, Munson also noticed that her students were particularly intrigued by local environmental case studies, with a lecture about sulfur dioxide emissions in Detroit’s 48217 zip code resulting in a long line of enthusiastic students sharing their reactions after class. “Some were from that zip code and others had no idea that this was happening. I mean, students were so interested,” Munson recounts. She began developing a mini-course on Michigan environmental justice topics, which became EARTH 115: The Science Behind Michigan’s Environmental Justice Issues. As the name suggests, EARTH 115 provides students with the necessary scientific background to discuss these issues with more nuance. Once they understand the Flint water crisis, Detroit air pollution, and methylmercury levels in fish in the Upper Peninsula, they discuss the impacts on different marginalized groups. 

Since the mini-course structure only allows for a limited amount of class time, Munson’s pedagogical approach focuses on lecturing about new material and facilitating discussions instead of giving many assignments. However, she decided to pilot an EARTH 115 activity in ArcGIS last semester where students independently compared various metrics of pollution in 48217 – Michigan’s most polluted zip code – and Ann Arbor. Unveiling corresponding layers in ArcGIS, students investigated the number of industrial sites, total sulfur dioxide emissions, lead and arsenic levels, and asthma rates in each zip code. Across all metrics, 48217 is drastically more polluted than Ann Arbor; Munson believes that the hands-on nature of this assignment led students to learn about disparities in pollution more effectively than if the information had been relayed to them in a lecture. 

While the content covered in EARTH 380 and EARTH 115 is often negative or frustrating, Munson has learned that students stay more engaged with and excited about sustainability content when she offers actionable ways for them to make a difference. “Students are most interested and most engaged when they feel empowered to go out and make a change in the world,” she observes. The issues of environmental justice and natural resources are complex, but by talking through them and encouraging spirited, respectful classroom debate, educators can keep their students excited and prepared to implement the course content in their future careers. After all, “we have the leaders and best here at Michigan…they can make decisions or have ideas that help the communities they’re learning about” in any path they choose. 

Munson is teaching EARTH 202: Introduction to Earth and Environmental Science in the Rockies at Camp Davis in Summer 2024. Students interested in water resources and justice are encouraged to check out her mini-course EARTH 109: Water and Society in Fall 2024. She will also be teaching EARTH 380 (which is currently full) and EARTH 219: Introduction to Environmental Science in Fall 2024. Open to students of any background, these courses will equip students with the skills and knowledge to solve environmental issues of the present and future.

As a part of the Year of Sustainability, we are interested in sharing, uplifting, and highlighting stories about the people who make up LSA and have experience teaching about sustainability. We sat down with a series of LSA faculty to discuss their background and courses and will feature these conversations in our Faculty Spotlight series.

To contact the LSA Year of Sustainability Team, please contact sustainable-lsa@umich.edu . 

By Lauren May

Lauren is the Year of Sustainability Intern for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.