Faculty Spotlight: Michela Arnaboldi

Teaching Professor, Lecturer in Earth and Environmental Sciences and Intermittent Lecturer in Program in the Environment, School for Environment and Sustainability

Spotlight on ENVIRON 111: Climate Change and Sustainability: Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century

Professor Michela Arnaboldi has always been passionate about the oceans. During her undergraduate degree in Italy, she studied marine biology and completed summer research with a University of Michigan oceanographer. She then attended U-M for her master’s and PhD, studying oceanographic changes in the Mediterranean Sea related to climate change. Now, as a professor at the University, the class she has taught most frequently is EARTH 222: Introductory Oceanography. In this course, climate change, overfishing, and other sustainability topics have always been part of her lectures, since it’s important to expose students to modern challenges to the oceans. A few years ago, Professor Arnaboldi was given the opportunity to take over teaching ENVIRON 111: Climate Change and Sustainability: Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century. At the time, ENVIRON 111 was taught by two professors in tandem – one in the social sciences and the other in the natural sciences. When Professor Arnaboldi began teaching the course, she adapted the content to align more closely with her natural science background and “what [she] could properly, authentically teach,” retaining most of the topics and including more about the oceans. She expresses enthusiasm about the ability of this 100-level course to give students of many backgrounds a broad scientific background in sustainability, since “all students, at some point, will have to face problems related to climate change and sustainability. That’s the focus of the class, sustainability, and challenges to sustainability. Maybe it’s something that you can choose to ignore. But it’s here.”

Given the large class size and students’ varying levels of prior knowledge of environmental topics, Professor Arnaboldi always begins ENVIRON 111 by defining sustainability in the context of the class. “I like to think of sustainability as a process that should allow a system – whatever that is, because you can also talk about sustainability in terms of business – to continue indefinitely, or for generations to come,” she shares. “In the class, we are talking about the challenges to keeping the Earth system going for our needs.” Over her years teaching this course, Professor Arnaboldi has observed that students are rarely skeptical about the facts surrounding climate change. Still, they do have varying ideas about the best responses and solutions. In response, Professor Arnaboldi focuses each lecture on a different topic and dedicates time to discussing the role of businesses, the government, and individuals in tackling each challenge. 

To counteract the feelings of inefficacy that students often face when learning about environmental issues, Professor Arnaboldi has her ENVIRON 111 students make a “pledge” to pick up a behavior that will make their lifestyle more sustainable. As they go through the semester, students explore the impact of their actions using a CO2 calculator, compute the amount of water saved by their behavior, and reflect on how this individual change can become part of their lives after the semester ends. “I also want to leave the students with a sense of agency, so they are working on this project, they’re learning from their change, and learning from the changes that other students in the class have made,” Professor Arnaboldi explains. She also has students practice talking about their lifestyle changes, acknowledging that building community and discussing climate change are key to generating group action. In addition to the pledges assignment, Professor Arnaboldi engages students with solutions and policy during a class period dedicated to researching significant international climate events. Topics include the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Paris Agreement, and COP conferences. Students work in groups and conclude the class period by briefly presenting their topic. Professor Arnaboldi shares a full digital list of sources for this and her other lectures, giving students a resource to return to in future endeavors and conversations. Recognizing that ENVIRON 111 could be one of the only science courses that some students take in college, Professor Arnaboldi works hard to give students the background and skills they need to interact with science in the real world: “I would hope that we provide students with at least the chance of an understanding of how science works, and how to find scientific information that a politician or a media agency has not digested.” 

With experience teaching courses purely about natural sciences and more interdisciplinary courses like ENVIRON 111, Professor Arnaboldi has learned a lot about how educators with different backgrounds can best approach teaching about sustainability. In particular, she encourages her colleagues in the natural sciences to consider how human activity affects their course topic: “Once you connect humans with soils, mountains, lakes, the ocean, then you’re going to have to talk about sustainability.” Acknowledging that no topic exists in a vacuum, just as Professor Arnaboldi does in her Introductory Oceanography course, helps students connect course content to their own lives, begin thinking about solutions, and perhaps even grow their interest in diving deeper into future sustainability coursework. It could even be as simple as picking a book related to the course content and human impacts, sharing it with students, and encouraging them to read along. “It sometimes is daunting, I feel, for people trained as scientists to talk about squishy things,” Professor Arnaboldi admits. “But I feel a responsibility to say okay, but these are the facts. And that’s how you can find them. Even if you don’t believe what I’m saying, this is how you can find out.”

This fall, students are encouraged to check out EARTH 100: Coral Reefs, a mini-course that Professor Arnaboldi describes as “a lot of fun to teach.” She will also teach EARTH 222 and EARTH 156: Coral Reef Dynamics.

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.