A Conversation with Dr. Nan Renner, Senior Director of Learning Design and Innovation for Birch Aquarium at Scripps
BY EMILY ZOU
On May 22, a convergence of San Diego climate education organizers will meet at the Climate Champions Virtual Summit, a project developed by the Climate Champions team. Based at UC San Diego, the team and project is a unique cross-campus collaboration, with its members from UC San Diego’s CREATE (Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence), Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Education Studies, San Diego County Office of Education, K-12 teacher leaders, and local youth leaders. In this article, I spoke with Nan Renner, the project leader and principal investigator for the project. Renner also serves as the Senior Director of Learning Design and Innovation at Birch Aquarium and partners with the CREATE STEM Success Initiative.
Q: What will the summit look like?
Renner: During the summit, we have planned time dedicated for learning together about important topics, such as what young people need, climate justice and climate action, climate communication strategies, and the integration of Indigenous knowledge. This will lay the foundation for learning sessions later in the summit, where teacher and youth leaders will share curriculum and resources. In between the learning sessions, we’ll also have music for people to have some fun with, as well as breakout rooms where community organizations will share learning resources and opportunities to connect. For example, Birch Aquarium will share resources to connect people to the environment, and Access Justice from Scripps will share the work that they’re doing.
Q: What is Climate Champions’ relationship with the University of California at large?
Renner: The University of California declared a climate emergency in 2019, and we take that very seriously. The way that our climate is changing demands immediate action in terms of becoming aware and understanding the driving causes. But we must also understand that there are multiple solutions that already exist, and we need the social and political will, as well as courage, to implement those solutions.
In response to the climate emergency, and the University of California’s acknowledgment of it as such, we mounted this effort to support learning about climate in K-12 schools. We do not want to offload this responsibility to the younger generations, but we want to prepare young people and join forces with them. We want to recognize that young people can be tremendous influencers—we’ve seen that with the climate movement, where young people are helping to shift public opinion and political will around climate action.
We’re also connected with a broader initiative called the UC-CSU ECCLPs, which stands for Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Projects. ECCLPs focuses on how we can leverage the state university system to promote and advance climate education for all students. Climate Champions is informed and inspired by ECCLPs, and we’re using it as a demonstration project of how we move from ideas to action. We’re eager to engage faculty, staff, and students at UC San Diego in the drive to leverage the university in meaningful climate education and action, centered on justice and making things right in the world.
We’ve got a global movement around climate education and action. Schools are a really big sector with significant public funding. We can use schools to move toward a greener society and economy and to demonstrate how this work can get done.
Q: Is this summit just a part of greater work that you’re doing, or is it the end goal?
Renner: It is part of our trajectory; it is not the end goal. It is however, a milestone, in terms of culminating work that took place over the past eight or nine months.
Q: What has your team done to uplift marginalized communities, especially in the discussion of climate justice, and how will that be reflected in the summit itself?
Renner: I would say that young people, in many ways, have been marginalized in the realm of climate action because inaction has put the future of young people at risk. We are lifting up youth voices. Our youth leaders play a prominent role in the summit, presenting a keynote panel. We’re not bringing in a famous person from far away, rather we’re lifting up local youth leaders to talk about work that they are doing.
We are also integrating Indigenous knowledge into our summit and resources. In part, it is an acknowledgment of the history of genocide and cultural erasure and the loss of Indigenous knowledge that has contributed to the degradation of ecosystems and dehumanization of people resulting in the climate crisis. Some of the people who are participating integrally in our work, as well as presenting at our summit, are Chenoa Musillo, who is a PhD student in Education Studies. Chenoa has been one of our grad student researchers from the very beginning.She is committed to antiracist and decolonizing education. She has ancestral and cultural ties to the Kumeyaay people, who are the stewards of this land. Heather Ponchetti Daly, from the Santi Isabel Nation of Iipay, part of the Kumeyaay ancestral homeland, is a scholar of Indigenous history and Environmental Law, and she is serving as an advisor on our climate curriculum. Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an author, policy advisor, professor, and scholar of Indigenous knowledge. All three of them will be presenting on integrating Indigenous knowledge. Our intent is to continue to develop curriculum with our team and plan future learning events that honor and integrate Indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge as a way to respond, adapt to, and mitigate climate change.
Q: In your opinion, why should UCSD students care about your mission, and why should they attend the summit?
Renner: I think that, first, it’s an opportunity to learn about important ideas and efforts related to climate change and climate education. It’s also an opportunity to connect with a community with shared values. I believe that we should all care about climate change. I know that not everyone does, but what I see in the young people around me is that there is greater awareness about environmental degradation and climate change. At the summit, there will be something that may be interesting to everyone who cares about climate change. But also, the summit is going to be FUN! It will be community building and soul nourishing. It will emphasize creativity and resilience in the face of climate challenges, and those are things we need right now.
Q: Will there be opportunities for UCSD students to get involved?
Renner: There are a lot of opportunities! We’ll have folks from the education community talk about how we can make the most engaging and relevant learning experiences for K-12 students. While UCSD students can be beneficiaries and learners in this summit, they can also be advisors to our work. Students can offer their perspectives about what they think is important in climate education, advancing our goal to get more teaching, learning, and action on climate in local schools.
Interested students can find more information and register for the summit here: https://climatechampions.ucsd.edu/events-2/