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UBC student HyunGu Kang didn’t think her program did enough to tackle the impact of race on climate change, so she created a seminar to study those issues.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

HyunGu Kang was halfway through her natural resources conservation program at the University of British Columbia when she realized something was missing. Her education, thus far, had lacked a depth of conversation on how race intersects with climate issues.

Raised in Toronto by Korean parents who frequently organized on racial justice in their community, she recalls a time in class when they were asked to study the roots of the climate movement and she noticed most of these traced back only to the 1950s and 60s.

She didn’t think that went far back enough.

So, in her third year, she made use of UBC’s self-directed program, which provides upper-year undergrads the chance to co-ordinate a three-credit seminar on a topic that’s not offered at the university. She wrote up a syllabus and submitted a proposal to create a “conversations on race and climate change” seminar.

Her application was accepted, and ran from January to April, 2019, with nearly a dozen students from a range of faculties including geography, sociology and the social justice institute.

In the student-led course, they established theoretical frameworks to understand race and climate change issues, looked at how current structures can be shifted and mapped out “livable climate futures” with the year 2100 as a benchmark.

“I think that the front lines of climate change are in racialized spaces,” Ms. Kang says. “That’s why it’s so important for me to reclaim these narratives, exhume our histories and acknowledge that solutions that don’t come from a critical place are not going to be enough.”

Using the university’s frameworks to fill this academic gap, the students were able to learn more about what the links in racial and climate ideologies mean, as well as create personal commitments they will carry forward.

For a long time, universities have been the research engine providing the evidence and science behind global issues. They are now increasingly becoming spaces to innovate and create out-of-the-box solutions.

And as youth-led movements burgeon globally, demanding us to take action on the climate crisis, universities are working to teach future generations how to best navigate – and shape – this changing landscape.

Bernhard Riecke, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of interactive arts and technology, runs an experiential learning course titled Semester in Alternate Realities. The course intends to inspire interdisciplinary students to solve a real-world problem through virtual reality and VR physical installations.

“At the very root of the issue that we have is that people just don’t care enough and don’t do enough,” Prof. Riecke says. “So can we provide these transformative, positive and profound experiences … that they couldn’t otherwise have?”

In the course’s first iteration this past spring, a team of students created a VR project titled Rising Waters: Is this your future? With a VR headset, participants were transported to the submerged streets of Richmond, B.C., in a projected future where the effects of climate change have happened and the majority of the city is underwater.

The goal of this student project was to “create a call to action and inspire participants to critically think about the larger picture of how we can work towards finding the solution to reduce the impacts of climate change,” narrates one of the students in their project video.

Since this is an open research area, Prof. Riecke says there are many possibilities for universities to push this knowledge forward.

“One of the wonderful roles universities play is really helping our next generations take charge, equipping them with the tools and then being surprised by what they come up with,” Prof. Riecke says.

Jim Gudjonson, director of environment and sustainability at Thompson Rivers University, agrees.

Having worked at TRU’s sustainability office since its inception 10 years ago, he’s seen firsthand the passion and diverse interest students bring with them toward sustainability efforts on campus.

The office provides a range of ways to get involved in academic and non-academic sustainability efforts, from a certificate in environmental leadership to the sustainability student ambassador program, which gives ambassadors tuition credits on one of their courses as an incentive to participate.

Mr. Gudjonson says that they continue to see more and more students participating in sustainability efforts outside class.

“It’s a very influential time in [students’] development and they are taking what they are learning into their professional and personal lives moving forward,” he says.

Whether it’s learning how to compost or using bike- or car-sharing programs, Mr. Gudjonson says that at the base level, students are given the capacity to participate in sustainable habits on campus. He hopes that these will be carried forward into the future.