Case Studies Integrate Perspectives
On Complex Environmental Themes

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Wan Ping Chua ’17 Yale-NUS, left, Sarah Sax ’17 M.E.Sc., Kristin Lambert ’16 M.E.M., Prof. Liza Comita, Prof. Michael Dove, and Minna Brown ’15 M.E.M., the Case Study Integration Manager, during a panel on palm oil in April.
Palm oil comes up quite a bit at Yale, and for good reason. In many countries the growing palm oil sector, which accounts for 40 percent of the world’s vegetable oil market, poses a complex set of challenges, including ecological, economic, social, and political impacts. At the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), faculty members have long examined the issue from a range of perspectives, from sustainable agroforestry and economic justice to habitat destruction and climate implications.

A new School initiative aims to help faculty and students integrate these different disciplinary perspectives through the use of online case studies — on palm oil, but also other critical environmental themes — that promote a more nuanced exploration of these complex issues.
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Rich Carey via Shutterstock
The first issue examined in the F&ES Case Study Integration Initiative was palm oil, a growing sector that accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s vegetable oil market — and causes a wide range of ecological, social, and economic impacts.
Introduced in the spring of 2015, the “Case Study Integration Initiative” enables faculty and students to access a trove of curated online resources, including the latest peer-reviewed literature, as well as news coverage, NGO reports, maps, and multimedia content around particular environmental issues. It uses the cases to help make connections across disciplines, not only through classes, but also through workshops, webinars, team-taught sessions and panel discussions.

During its first year, eight F&ES faculty members used the palm oil case study in six different courses. A public panel discussion then brought some of those faculty and students together to discuss their different perspectives on the palm oil issues and possible paths toward more sustainable production.
This semester, the School is introducing case studies on water rights in the western U.S. and urban climate resilience. The Urban Resilience case emerged from the combination of two courses: one, that worked with the city of New Haven to update its Hazard Mitigation Plan in the face of a changing climate; the other, that was an on-line course developed in collaboration with the 100 Resilient Cities Program of the Rockefeller Foundation. Other case studies are being built out around the Yale Carbon Charge project and the Flint, Mich. water crisis (based on the ”Science to Solutions” class led by Prof. Julie Zimmerman).
“Most faculty already use examples in their courses, which often take the form of case studies,” said Brad Gentry, a Professor in the Practice at F&ES and Associate Dean for Professional Practice, who worked with former Dean Peter Crane to help expand the number of case studies available for use in the School’s curriculum.
“What’s different here is that we are building out cases that faculty want to use in multiple classes, across a variety of academic disciplines. We can then use that as a platform for connecting across disciplines through activities like the panels or having faculty join each other’s classes to have that wider cross-disciplinary discussion.”
“It is increasingly imperative that we offer students guidance on how to connect across disciplines,” added Crane. “The case study model will allow the School to do just that, in ways that are not only of interest to students, but that also build connections that leverage the expertise of the faculty.”
The initiative mirrors similar projects across the Yale campus, including at the School of Management (SOM) and the School of Public Health, where educators are working to bring more concrete examples of real world problems into the classroom.
In fact, the SOM ”Raw” case method helped inspire the F&ES case study initiative. And the School’s “Natural Capital” online course — which explored complex natural resource management questions and was developed by faculty and students from both F&ES and SOM — served as a model.
Subjects for the case studies are selected based on the interests of faculty and students, and will tackle environmental challenges that lack clear-cut solutions, said Minna Brown ’15 M.E.M., the Case Study Integration Manager, who is leading the effort to build and coordinate the case studies.
One of the great advantages we have is that F&ES is a professional school in a research university, which allows us to prepare students for their careers by connecting the depth of our faculty expertise.
— Minna Brown
In order for a case study to be adopted it must be of interest to at least three faculty members, she said. In the case of the palm oil case study the interest has been far greater. It was used by eight professors, including Liza Comita, a professor of tropical forest ecology, who used the case study in her course, “Ecology and Conservation of Tropical Forests,” and Michael Dove, an anthropologist and professor of social ecology, who used it in his course, “Disaster, Degradation, and Dystopia.” In addition, several students used the case study in research and collaborations outside of their coursework.
In some cases, faculty members have proposed ways to strengthen the case studies with their own research and student work. For example, Mark Bradford, a professor of terrestrial ecosystem ecology, is using the palm oil case as the basis for several student projects.
“One of the great advantages we have is that F&ES is a professional school in a research university, which allows us to prepare students for their careers by connecting the depth of our faculty expertise to the solution of pressing environmental issues,” said Brown. “The case study initiative has been a perfect illustration of the kinds of conversations we want to have much more regularly.”
In Liza Comita’s Tropical Forest Ecology class, students were divided into four groups, each of which was asked to digest one of four sections of the case study — climate; biodiversity and habitat; pollution; and social impacts — and then bring back their perspectives in a broader conversation. She also invited Amity Doolittle, a senior lecturer and research scientist at F&ES, to speak to her students about village-level response to palm oil and deforestation and questions about land rights.
Among other issues they examined was how the expansion of oil palm plantations, and subsequent loss of tree diversity, reduces species richness, Comita said. The case study, she said, “ended up pulling together all these different topics we’d talked about throughout the semester.”
One of her students, Sarah Sax ’17 M.E.Sc., sees the case study initiative as providing an important space that brings together different disciplines in a way that builds integrated knowledge. She used the palm oil case for her final paper in Prof. Susan Clark’s course, “Society and Natural Resources.”
“This case study represents an amazing step in the right direction,” Sax said during the spring panel discussion. “It does bring people onto the same page, quite literally. And I also think that a case study of palm oil is indicative of global challenges that are trans-disciplinary and demand trans-disciplinary solutions as opposed to fragmentation.”
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: October 4, 2016
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.