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

Eric Benson
4 min readJul 2, 2020

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…

Eric Benson

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