Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

A mindful approach to global change

Part one in a series on innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

When Paul Grogan (Biology) joined the Queen’s faculty in 2003, he initiated a small fourth-year course entitled “Biogeochemistry and Global Change” that explored the science behind global environmental issues including climate change.

Dr. Paul Grogan (back row, third from right) and the 2016 BIO510 class. Dr. Grogan redesigned the class this year to teach the biological, geological and anthropological mechanisms behind global change using a Buddhist philosophical lens. (Supplied Photo)

In an effort to keep the material fresh, engaging and exciting for students, successive iterations of the course have explored not just the physical science but also the fundamental underlying cause of all global change issues – human behaviour. This past semester, Dr. Grogan was inspired to design a course unlike any his students had ever seen before, combining the hard science of biogeochemistry with the metaphysical approach of a centuries-old religion.

“Every time I teach the course, I do it differently,” says Dr. Grogan. “This past winter I decided to expand its scope by retitling it “Biogeochemistry, Buddhism, and Global Change.” The idea was to look at the potential of Buddhist philosophical perspectives to enhance our ability to live more sustainably.”

The course encouraged students to consider concepts central to contemporary Buddhist philosophy – mindfulness, interconnectivity and impermanence – and how they can be used to approach not just personal wellbeing but also global sustainability. Taught from a secular perspective, while paying proper respect to the faith of adherents, Dr. Grogan says the objective of the course was to get students thinking about how a small change of mindset can have a tremendous impact when put into action.

“When we talk about climate change, 98 per cent of scientists and a majority of the public agree that it is happening, and that it’s because we’re burning fossil fuels,” Dr. Grogan explains. “The recent Paris international agreement indicates that our society is beginning to address the carbon issue, but we’re really only scratching the surface. The proposed actions don’t address the fundamental root cause of the problem: we’re using too much of our natural resources at too fast a rate.”

Dr. Grogan began the course with introductory seminars, and then handed it over to the students who led seminars aimed at relating biogeochemistry and global change through the Buddhist philosophical framework, while encouraging discussion on how to take action. From reducing consumption of material goods to the broader concept of mindfulness, students explored ways in which application of these principles could encourage effective action.

As a conclusion to the course, Dr. Grogan and his students compiled an innovative and engaging brief summary video to help further spread the lessons learned, and to serve as a starting point for wider reflection and discussion on the need for our society to re-evaluate how we live.

“We’ve got caught on a treadmill and urgently need to re-evaluate what is really important to us,” says Dr. Grogan. “We need to start living in a way that is less about accumulating resources, less about ‘acquiring,’ and more about simplifying our lives and reducing our impact on the world around us.”

For more information on the course, or to view the end of term video, please visit the website.