Behind the Syllabus: How to Introduce Climate Science into your Design Curriculum

The Beginning
In January 2019, I emailed a few design faculty I knew in North America. From Toronto to California, I hoped to recruit a few folks to join me in introducing climate science into our classrooms that semester. I had the idea a week or two before the term started. Everyone I emailed said “Sounds good. Maybe next time, I have my class already planned.” I was too late in asking them, but I forged ahead with it anyway that term on my own.

I may have been a few weeks too late, but design and design education are decades late to the climate emergency. Science, governments, and the oil companies have known for decades about greenhouse gases and the likelihood of human-caused climate change from burning fossil fuels. Climate change is here now and like Covid-19, it doesn’t give a damn if you believe in it or not. It’s going to wreak havoc on our lives going forward. It’ll get worse the less we do to drawdown our greenhouse gas emissions. However, the more we work to reduce our carbon footprint to zero and, at the same time, regenerate our planet, the better we’ll have it in the decades ahead.

So, for the designer to know the best way to do this they need to be taught about the climate from the beginning.

The Beginning (the Sequel)
My semester in spring 2019 was a good lesson for me in how to best teach climate design. That term I taught a junior-level class called EDGE (Ethics of a Designer in a Global Economy) and discussed climate change and ethics through readings, videos, and projects with parameters based on climate science. We read climate science journal articles from scientists like Michael E. Mann and Katharine Hayhoe, vented our frustrations with America’s inaction on the climate, and designed using psychological strategies to better create climate action. It was a logical continuation of my work in design and sustainability from my 13 years of teaching prior. (You can see a presentation of the results of this class from the 2019 SECAC Conference in Chattanooga, TN).

After the class, and over the summer, I struck up an informal Twitter conversation with design educators Kristian Bjørnard and Marc O’Brien about teaching climate science in a college design course. A few phone call meetings later, Marc and Sarah Harrison helped launch Climate Designers. Our mission is to “provide the resources, knowledge, and community for designers to take climate action in the work they do. To inspire, motivate, and graduate climate designers by providing climate-focused resources for design educators.”

Ever since the project and community launched Kristian, Marc, and I have been working on Climate Designers EDU. Our goal is to “…graduate the next wave of design leaders who are solving our climate crisis.” In order to do this, we developed this list of questions:
1. What skills do students need to have in order to address our climate crisis?
2. How can design educators support students as they start their path to becoming climate designers?

To begin to answer these questions, we created a survey for design educators, with the hopes of creating climate science parameters that can be easily introduced into design projects and curriculums, facilitating workshops to educate design educators on climate science, launching a design education and climate science conference, and also publishing design education projects online for the fall 2020 semester and beyond. We’re well on our way to delivering these, but if you would like to help, you can! Just message me in the comments below!

The Podcast
Since the creation of Climate Designers last fall, we’ve taught climate design through a pandemic and a recession. All the while, Marc, Kristian, and I have kept our spirits up virtually and discussed how everything was working in our classes once a month. We recorded these calls, and with some editing, we’re excited to release Season One of “Behind the Syllabus: A Four Episode Climate Podcast”.

Each episode consists of answering the following questions about teaching climate science in a design class:
1. What’s been working?
2. What’s been a challenge?
3. What’s a question you still have?

Each episode will be released weekly until July 20, 2020, to help design educators prepare for teaching climate design in the fall and beyond.

If you have ideas, sign-up at our Mighty Networks community and join the ongoing discussion on climate design. We are also looking for design educators to interview on Season 2 of “Behind the Syllabus”. If you are teaching climate science in your design classrooms, or if you want to get started with climate design, feel free to email

Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Co-founder of Re-nourish and Fresh Press Agri-Fiber Paper Lab.

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