Teachers: The Environmental Heroes We Didn’t Know We Needed


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written in February 2023, and then updated in May 2023 after the author spoke with students in EPOL 421.

In Spring 2023, 30 graduate students studied the history, theory, and practice of sustainability education in EPOL 421, Education for Global Environmental Sustainability. This eight-week course is offered by the Education Policy, Organization & Leadership Department within the College of Education. Designed and taught by Samantha Lindgren, the course will expose aspiring educators and policy makers to the role of education in creating a sustainable and just future.

Lindgren has a background in an impressive array of fields, including astrophysics, sustainable agriculture, and gender studies. Her diversity of experiences and expertise is connected by her passions for education and sustainability. Lindgren is an Assistant Professor in the Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership program and the Women & Gender in Global Perspectives program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She also serves as an affiliated faculty member in the department of Agriculture and Biological Engineering and the Technology Entrepreneurship Center in the Grainger College of Engineering.

iSEE named Lindgren a Levenick Teaching Sustainability Fellow in 2021, and through the fellowship, she received funding to develop EPOL 421. Lindgren hopes the course bridges the gap between sustainability and the typical areas of focus for graduate students studying education. As a faculty member with secondary positions in both the Colleges of ACES and Grainger College of Engineering, Lindgren saw a sharp disparity in the level of attention given to climate change and environmental justice issues between those colleges and the College of Education.

The lack of sustainability courses and resources for education students was unacceptable to Lindgren, who swiftly took action to address the issue.

“I think every student in the College of Education should take a class like this,” Lindgren said. “As a former education master’s student, I was really interested in the social aspects of sustainability, but those courses were never available to me.”

Lindgren piloted EPOL 421 over the Fall 2022 semester, so the Spring 2023 class was the second iteration. Feedback from students in the pilot class informed many of the changes made to EPOL 421 for spring. Specifically, Lindgren has a better understanding of the type of students enrolling and has tailored the course to best serve those students’ needs.

“I find that getting to know your students is the most important part of teaching,” she said. “I want to understand their backgrounds and interests so my course can meet them where they’re at and use their concerns as the context for what we study.”

Aside from weekly meetings, students in EPOL 421 also completed real-world assignments to bring the concepts of sustainability education to their own communities and environments. This practical component is largely drawn from Lindgren’s own experiences.

Samantha Lindgren in Bangladesh interviewing mostly female farmers about their training and education needs as unpredictable weather patterns and flooding have caused loss in their rice yields. Also present are Lindgren’s colleagues at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, one of her Ph.D. students, and the ADM Institute for Post Harvest Loss Assistant Director, Maria Jones.

Prior to becoming a faculty member, Lindgren taught physics and environmental science at public high schools around the country. She has also taught students in a variety of settings, including the Australian outback and an urban Ojibwe Native American school. For her doctoral dissertation, Lindgren studied the tangible impacts of youth sustainability education in rural communities in Namibia. She found that communities with a sustainability education camp in place for youth became more invested in sustainable behaviors than communities without an education camp, regardless of income level. “I’d ask parents and other adults in the community, ‘where did you hear about that?’ if they expressed an interest in a sustainable behavior or topic, and most times they would say ‘my children.’ ”

As a Ph.D. student, Lindgren served as a member of iSEE’s Stored Solar Stove research team, which developed a solar-powered cooking device called a “Sun Bucket” to reduce indoor air pollution. She spent time with women in the Navajo Nation and Haiti to focus on the role of communication and education to better understand energy cultures and behaviors.

Lindgren has also collaborated with the Illinois State Board of Education, 100Kin10, the National Science Foundation, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to develop standardized science curriculums and implement new environmental education methods.

These experiences make Lindgren an expert in the real-world applications of sustainability education that are emphasized in EPOL 421: “I think the idea that sustainability and climate change are only ‘science topics’ highlights how much work we have to do, because climate change has social impacts, economic impacts, and cultural impacts.”

Lindgren stresses the importance of both formal and informal sustainability education, especially in places where governments restrict what content is allowed to be taught in schools.

“I think the most important thing that I want my students to take away from EPOL 421 is that the impacts of climate change affect the most vulnerable communities much more than people in positions of privilege,” she said. “In the United States, it’s historically communities of color that bear the greatest burden, and when we think globally, it’s the Global South, specifically small island nations and countries dealing with desertification and unpredictable, changing weather patterns.”

People’s perspective on climate change and environmental injustice impacts their day-to-day decisions and how they vote. With the help of educators like Lindgren, sustainability education creates a more informed and empathetic society.

“We must teach in a hopeful way that focuses on innovation,” Lindgren said. “The younger we can start helping students to understand environmental issues and feel hopeful and energized instead of depressed and overwhelmed, the better off we all will be.”


As the end of the semester approached, author Lucy Nifong asked two students describe their experience in EPOL 421.

Ava Kerr is a graduate student pursuing a Doctor of Education in the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership department with a concentration in Learning Design and Leadership. She elected to take EPOL 421 to better understand how sustainability education is implemented in different school environments.

“I taught middle school science for the last six years and was interested in investigating the ways that place-based education can be harnessed to support teaching climate change,” Kerr said.

For her, what stands out about EPOL 421 is the diverse community of students. “The class is composed of people from a diverse range of backgrounds- agricultural engineers, teachers, writers, lawyers,” she said. “I love being able to hear their range of perspectives since so often I am in dialogues only with other teachers.”

Jessica Mingee is a first-year Ph.D. student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. She studies contextual engineering — how societal factors affect engineering decision making — and chose to take EPOL 421 because it aligned with her research on rural communities and climate change.

Like Kerr, she appreciates the unique perspectives found within EPOL 421. Students vary in both academic background and level of career development.
Mingee was pleasantly surprised by the level of autonomy in the course. Each student chooses their readings for the week if they can justify how it ties to the course. This allows students to tailor the readings to their interests and explore new topics that they might not otherwise.

“I was really burnt out after undergrad and lost a lot of motivation, but this class reminded me why I’m interested in these things and made me want to work hard again,” she said. “I can’t recommend it enough.”


— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Lucy Nifong