Faculty Spotlight: Jason Duvall

Lecturer, Program in the Environment (PitE)

Spotlight on ENVIRON 139: First-Year Seminar in the Environment, Prescription Nature and ENVIRON 308: Sustainability and Health 

Dr. Jason Duvall developed a connection to nature early on while wandering around fields and forests in southwest Ohio. He went on to study environmental health as an undergraduate, worked for an energy justice and efficiency nonprofit in Atlanta, and eventually found his way to Chicago with a job as a lab pack chemist. But there was always a pull to do more – he always had a connection to nature, but why was that connection so strong? He began to ask questions such as, “how do people think about the environment they are experiencing?” and “how do environments impact people’s ability to function?” These queries led him down the path he is on today, obtaining his Ph.D. and becoming a lecturer for the Program in the Environment. He attributes much of his knowledge today to Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, two foundational figures in the field of environmental psychology who also happened to be professors at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Duvall teaches several courses that draw on environmental psychology. His current first-year seminar, Prescription Nature: How Nature Contact Enhances Health (ENVIRON 139), aims to address why and how nature contact matters, and, more importantly, how we can test theories that nature makes people feel better. What is the science behind this, and how confident can we be in the findings? To answer these questions, Dr. Duvall structured the course to be hands-on, incorporating small experiments, nature reflection opportunities, and bringing in practitioners from the subjects they are discussing. 

In the course, students conduct two small experiments that test incidental, short-term exposure to nature and more immersive, longer-term exposure. These assignments prompt students to think, “I need to design experiments. I need to measure these things. What does that look like? Do I trust the results of my experiment? Do I use objective measures or subjective measures? What am I actually trying to figure out here?” Students design a research plan, conduct the experiment, and submit reflections on the results. Dr. Duvall hopes these experiments will help students understand and see firsthand the theories they learn about throughout the course and observe them play out in real-time through an experiment they design.

Over the past few years teaching this course, Dr. Duvall has noted “this underlying unease with how [students] currently deal with stress and take breaks,” which is why he has students go on “adventures,” or nature experience reflections. These assignments are meant to be “less empirical and more experiential and more regular” than the experiments, giving students time to be more reflective about their interactions with nature. The “adventures” vary in duration, focus, and intensity, ranging from sitting outside for a few minutes or listening to a nature video to walking in the Arb with a friend and reflecting on their conversations. The goals of these assignments are to “[get] them to think more critically and carefully about the environment” and to have experiences in nature they might not have had otherwise. Students can then “compare what happens when [they] take a study break on [their] phone versus a study break where [they] listen to nature or [they] take a walk,” often citing a real difference in the latter experience.

In addition, Dr. Duvall also teaches ENVIRON 308: Sustainability and Health, which looks more holistically at how sustainability efforts influence multiple dimensions of health and well-being. In this course, as well as in ENVIRON 139, there is a focus on exploring real-world applications of the theories and ideas being discussed. Dr. Duvall specifically mentioned two applications, one in healthcare and the other in prison systems. One guest speaker that he brings in for ENVIRON 139 is Mirelle Phillips, Founder and CEO of Studio Elsewhere, the company that installed recharge rooms at Michigan Medicine.  These are spaces that provide “a chance for staff to have a place to retreat to kind of decompress,” incorporating nature experiences and directly drawing on the work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. Due to the high stress of patient care jobs, the “impacts in that particular case are really significant, people’s lives depend on it.” Several prison systems across the United States have begun to invest in Blue Rooms, or solitary confinement rooms that incorporate videos of nature or plants which have seen results of “less violent behavior and less aggressive action towards staff.”  

ENVIRON 308 begins by examining the feasibility of technologies being developed to help our world decarbonize, and Dr. Duvall challenges students to think about the people interacting with all of these systems. He says, “we all want to be in this together” and “everybody’s moving in the same direction,” so it doesn’t make sense to split up or exclude people from planning or conversations. This approach leans towards the social sustainability sector, emphasizing equity in clean energy transitions and the role of rural communities in decarbonization. He also has students talk about their vision of the future: “It’s easy to say, Oh, we’re going to be net zero, or we’re going to be more energy efficient, or we’re all going to have electric vehicles.” But he encourages students to dive deeper and talk about what an equitable decarbonized future looks like, asking them to consider, “When you go into a community, what do you see? What do you experience? How does that interact with transportation systems or food systems? Or housing, education?” He advises students (and readers) not to immediately fall into pessimism by fixating on all the reasons we can’t have a future we desire, saying, “If you build these barriers before you ever know what the destination is, then you’re settling for something that’s less than what you really want.”

Dr. Duvall’s advice to other educators teaching sustainability is “to have less hesitation about it, that students are really interested in having these conversations. It’s stuff that they care about, that they think is important and meaningful. And you don’t have to have all the answers to everything.” One of his favorite experiences while teaching is getting to “explore these issues together” and “construct new understandings of what is happening” with students.

For students interested in environmental psychology or sustainability, Dr. Duvall will be teaching ENVIRON 308: Sustainability and Health in the fall.

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 stejenna

Jenna Steele is the Year of Sustainability and Carbon Neutrality Program Assistant for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.