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Classes tackle ecopuzzles

Five years ago, Bob Costanza and his colleagues made headlines when they put a dollar value on nature: $33 trillion, to be exact.

Today, Dr. Costanza is still crossing the lines between economics and ecology in his roles as a professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington and director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics there.

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His courses aim to make sure students meld disciplines and shape what they're learning around real-world problems, not just theory.

In an academic world where professors have increasingly narrow areas of expertise and student assignments don't often reflect pressing issues outside the classroom, Costanza's approach is iconoclastic. "People forget how to talk to each other across their different departments," he says. "We've become a university of idiot savants. So we're very good at doing the things that we do, but we have no way of communicating with the rest of the world."

Costanza's own background is as eclectic as his courses. He studied engineering as an undergraduate, earned a master's degree in urban planning and architecture, and did his doctorate in a systems-ecology program within an environmental-engineering department. As part of his PhD, he studied economics.

Some of his "problem-based courses" have included trips abroad: Students researched how to establish successful ecotourism in the Dominican Republic, and how to manage dry forests in Zimbabwe.

In his most recent course, his students faced the daunting task of putting a value on biodiversity. They did a massive review of data to see if they could figure out how the number and variety of species in an area affects theservices the environment provides us - such as nutrient cycling or carbon sequestration, both of which are important for maintaining the climate. Costanza hopes to publish the results, with his students as coauthors, in a magazine such as Bioscience.

In a recent interview, he discussed his interdisciplinary approach and the importance of problem-based courses.

On crossing disciplines:

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We're trying to integrate across the natural sciences and the social sciences - you could even say reintegrate. I think there was a split several years ago, and now we're trying to put things back together. The reason is that the problems we're now facing are much more integrated problems. You can't ignore the linkages between the environment and the economy. [This way], you get people to think outside their boxes. It's in fact a very creative thing to do. And by thinking outside the constraints of their discipline, [students] generate new ideas.

On why his research looks at "value":

Economists have in some sense captured that word for some uses. They talk about economic value. But it's a little broader than just the market-exchange value of things.

There are things that happen outside the market that have economic implications that are valuable to us. So that's what we focused on in that study of the value of the earth's ecosystem's services. And we discovered that those values, even conservatively estimated, are larger than the market values.

That sort of turns economics on its head. Until then, the conventional wisdom was: Yes, there are these externalities, yes, there are some things the market doesn't capture, but those are small [portions] of what's going on.

On his most recent course:

This was partly a spinoff from a workshop we did in Cambridge a year ago that led to a paper in Science [magazine]. At that meeting, the original idea was to look at the value of biodiversity. In order to do that, you have to say: What's the link between biodiversity and the way systems function? And that's still a pretty controversial research area.

[Previous researchers] have shown there is a pretty good connection between biodiversity and productivity and nutrient cycling and many other things. But ... we needed to do a field-level empirical analysis.

On the problem-based approach:

The normal approach [when a professor wants to study a topic] would be to write a proposal, get some grant funding, hire a couple post-docs, do the research, and publish a paper. Instead, why not have students participate in that from the beginning?

We have this idea that we'll just teach students facts and methods and tools and techniques all the way through school, and then eventually they'll apply all these things. Some people can do it, but I think most people find it much easier to learn tools and techniques and facts if they have a context or a use for them to structure it around.

Also, doing it [the traditional] way doesn't teach them how to actually put the facts together to solve problems - how to be creative, how to synthesize. We're not training them in synthesis very well. We're only training them in analysis, and that's only one side of the coin. Again, it's the idiot savant problem. They can memorize a whole bunch of facts, but don't know what to do with them. By having these problem-based courses interspersed with tools-based courses, you can really improve the whole situation.

On his international courses:

We'd go [abroad] for two weeks, with local stakeholders who have the problem, and [work with students and faculty from] different disciplines. It's really an exciting way to do it. It's more like the real world. It is the real world. There's been this ongoing problem with academia being too much in the ivory tower, too theoretical, not really contributing to the betterment of humanity and the communities it lives in. This is a way of getting around that problem.

On what students take away from his courses:

I hope it's the ability to think.

What we're ultimately trying to do is teach them how to go through the whole process. And hopefully to think in a more creative way. I don't think memorizing facts is really thinking. It's part of it - you need to have some facts in there to work with. There is this balance that's required between analysis and synthesis to really think.

It's getting learning back to what it really should be, which is an exciting experience, and a creative experience, rather than something to be endured. That's what I like about it, and I think that's what [students] like about it, too.

And you're producing something. A lot of faculty members are just, "Oh, I have to go teach this course, and I don't have any time to do my research." What we're trying to do is eliminate that conflict, to make the teaching and the research be basically the same thing. So it's not like you have to sacrifice one for the other. And that's the same thing we're doing with ecological economics. You don't have to give up the environment in order to have a good economy.

On the imprecise nature of measurements:

We would prefer to be approximately right than precisely wrong. That's another of the idiot-savant tendencies: People learn how to measure certain things and they forget that those may not be the most important things to measure. So you have to step back and say, what is really important to measure and how can we measure that? And if there's some fuzziness, then acknowledge that, but certainly don't let it prevent [you] from trying to get those things into the picture.

Third in an occasional series.

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