Two core concepts guide the research of Harvard alumna and University of Vermont professor Rachelle Gould: environmental education and environmental values. Gould explores how people learn about the environment, why they make the environmental decisions they do, and how nature benefits humans—not just materially, but also psychologically and spiritually. Today, Gould is a teacher, a researcher, and a mentor. She credits her time as an undergraduate at Harvard with helping to shape her interest in community-based action and environmental education.
In 2002, as a Harvard undergraduate concentrating in Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP), Rachelle Gould and two friends noticed a need on campus for better strategies to help engage with students about environmental issues. So they teamed up with Harvard Recycling & Waste Management and other stakeholders from across the University to found the Resource Efficiency Program (REP), a peer-to-peer environmental education initiative that employs undergraduates to educate their peers on issues related to sustainability. The idea was to place a student educator (REP) in each of the twelve undergraduate houses. REPs would make connections with fellow dorm residents and encourage them to adopt more environmentally-friendly behaviors. Gould and her friends knew that if the program was successful, the money saved through energy and waste reduction would more than cover the costs of paying the REPs.
After the first year, Gould said, it was clear that the REP program was worth it. Not only did the program help the University save money on water, energy, and waste, but it also increased student awareness of sustainability and the concrete impact their actions could have on environmental issues. But Gould stressed that the program brought “positive co-benefits beyond the financial and even the ecological”: it helped to build community in the houses. Students were working together toward the common goal of improving environmental outcomes within their houses.
The teaching strategy that Gould and her team found most effective was the idea of “tailoring the communication to the context.” The REPs knew their houses and the individual opportunities and constraints they were working with. But, more importantly, they also knew what kind of educational campaigns would be “feasible and appealing to students.” Gould stressed that the main principle of the program was to “meet people where they are.” In other words, REPs constructed their lessons and events based on the information their peers already knew. They strove to make knowledge about environmental issues not just accessible to students with different backgrounds and experience, but also fun.
Gould recalled one particularly successful event that she and the REP team organized in the early days of the program. They set up an ice cream sundae bar for their peers, and used toppings to teach students about environmental issues. Chocolate syrup was a way to discuss fossil fuels; Swedish fish opened a conversation about overfishing. Gould explained that the REPs always made sure to connect their lessons with concrete actions that individuals could take to make a positive impact on the environment. She realized that the REPs were not just educating their peers, but also learning from them. In each house, the program had helped create “a cool ecosystem of connections” where students were “learning together and teaching each other.” Gould also found the program “empowering,” because it brought together people from multiple levels of the university (physical plant employees, administrators, and students) to work toward common goals.
Today, the REP program, which operates under the Office for Sustainability, is still a robust part of both the individual house communities and the Harvard undergraduate student body as a whole. Gould was proud to note that other universities drew inspiration from the program and began to develop their own environmental education initiatives. She said that UVM has a similar Eco-Rep program made up of student leaders who encourage sustainable behaviors within the University.
As a professor at UVM, Gould teaches courses in environmental values, environmental education, and interdisciplinary environmental science, advises seven Ph.D. students and works with students on a variety of research projects. She stressed that her experiences at Harvard as an ESPP concentrator and REP co-founder have helped inform the interdisciplinary nature of her work. Moreover, the community-based action she engaged in as a REP remains an important part of her research.
In one current project, Gould is investigating harmful algal blooms in Vermont with a focus on environmental learning, values, and action. She is curious about how people process the data they get about issues like algal blooms, and how that data interacts with their values—social, spiritual, recreational, and others—to shape their actions. Gould believes that gaining a better understanding of what nature means to us can help policymakers craft more effective solutions to environmental problems. Another project she is involved in is called “Coyote Stories,” in which she and her students work with high school students to learn about Vermonters’ opinions about coyotes—a contentious species in the state. This community-based project facilitates conversations between students and adults, with the goal of exploring how people feel about coyotes and what kind of policies they support. Through “Coyote Stories,” Gould and her team seek to answer theoretical questions with broader applicability, while supporting the local community.
At the conclusion of our interview, Gould offered, on request, two pieces of advice for current student environmental leaders, based on her experience as a researcher and educator. First, she stressed the importance of listening. “You can’t meet people where they are if you are not listening,” she explained, advocating an open-minded approach to engaging peers in conversations about environmental sustainability. Second, Gould noted that it is important “to not forget to have fun.” She recalled a lesson she learned from the ice cream sundae bar she made as a REP: environmental messages “can still be very powerful if they are fun.”