EnviroLab Asia awarded $1.4 million grant to expand environmental research project

To best understand the relationship between human activity and the environment in Asia, multiplicity is key. Examining the complexity of infrastructure issues through an environmental lens would yield one type of answer, while looking through the scope of history would yield another. Consider how music or media studies factor into the equation — what might those disciplines reveal about this tête-à-tête? EnviroLab Asia, a Claremont Colleges project, meets this query with a unique cross-disciplinary approach.

With a recent $1.4 million implementation grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE), the project continues its mission to equip future leaders with the skillset needed to develop sustainable and policy-relevant solutions to environmental challenges confronting Asia and the United States. Over the next four years, grant money will seed the creation of an innovative space in which Consortium students and faculty can continuously produce new knowledge on the subject.

Albert Park
Albert Park
Claremont McKenna

The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. LIASE, administered by the foundation’s Asia Program, encourages innovative approaches to Asian studies at the undergraduate level through the lens of the environment and sustainable development. By inviting faculty and students to cross geographic and disciplinary boundaries, LIASE aims to increase the capacity of Asian Studies faculty to teach about critical topics affecting the region, and expand Asia-related content across the curriculum.

Claremont McKenna College will lead the initiative, with Albert L. Park, Associate Professor of History at CMC, maintaining his role as Co-Principle Investigator to oversee the administration of the grant and shape research areas. Joining Park as Co-PIs are Branwen Williams, Associate Professor of Environmental Science in the Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps Colleges, and Marc Los Huertos, Stephen Pauley Chair of Environmental Studies and Associate Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

The project was co-founded by Park and fellow CMC History Department faculty member Tamara Venit-Shelton in 2015, with an emphasis on classroom learning, on-campus research, and off-campus practicum. Park’s own research focuses on the juncture between political economy and culture in Korean and East Asian history; his next project will explore the origins of environmental movements in modern Korean history.

Branwen Williams
Branwen Williams
Claremont McKenna

Similarly, EnviroLab Asia was structured around the need for intersectional discourse when talking about environmental issues in Asia. A perfect example of this principle in action was the Workshop for Change, which brought renowned Malaysian Chinese composer Yii Kah Hoe to Harvey Mudd for a lecture on music and environmental activism. Similarly, Rachel Mayeri, professor of media studies at Harvey Mudd, witnessed different threads coalescing during the project’s primary phase. “[On] the trip to Southeast Asia we saw how art, science, engineering, media, activism, and scholarship all have a role to play,” Mayeri said. “EnviroLab Asia, particularly through its multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural approach, is a model for how to approach ‘wicked’ problems.”

Initial funding, a $100,000 exploration grant from the Luce Foundation, provided the necessary support to create the framework for EnviroLab Asia in the 2015-16 academic year. During this empirical phase, faculty participants redeveloped nine different courses to incorporate the project’s theme, created research clusters to study deforestation and palm oil, and led a hands-on clinic trip in conjunction with Yale-NUS College in Singapore. To close the year’s research, a joint conference brought together fellow LIASE grantees Occidental College and Whittier College to share findings.

On the surface, EnviroLab Asia appears to be rooted primarily in Asian Studies and environmental analysis, but this is not entirely the case; newly shaped curriculum will draw from a robust interdisciplinary conversation. By exposing students to methodologies from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences, the program, as Professor Park explained, gives them “diverse opportunities and experiences to study environmental issues in Asia through a cross-disciplinary lens.”

Marc Los Huertos
Marc Los Huertos
Pomona College

Likewise, Professor Williams is eager to see EnviroLab Asia use an integrated, discipline-spanning approach to address environmental issues in Asia. "Through these efforts,” Williams said, “we will build capacity for transdisciplinary scholarship across the 5Cs.”

As a 5C initiative, faculty from the representative colleges will collaborate, building a larger ecosystem for future research. For instance, Yii’s “Workshop for Change” built upon the Claremont Concert Choir and Claremont Chamber Choir’s performance of his compositions in their “Awakening to the Environment” concert, which was organized by Anne Harley, a professor of music at Scripps and EnviroLab Asia Faculty Fellow. Yii’s music, arguably the most experimental piece performed by the choir, challenged students to push the boundaries on how environmental devastation can be addressed. Cross-campus exchange like this fills in curriculum gaps and capitalizes on the wealth of resources and unique strengths each college has to offer.

Nowhere will this idea be clearer than in the touchstone EnviroLab Asia class. The titular course will act as a lightning rod for interdisciplinary dialogue, being co-taught by two professors from different disciplines and featuring guest lecturers from across the academic spectrum. Throughout the semester, students will conduct research in research labs prior to going on the annual late-spring clinic trip.

Consider the clinic trip to be the focal point of the academic year’s on-campus research and experiential learning activities, wherein students will witness research theories unfolding in real time. Trips are scheduled for each consecutive year of the implementation phase, with Year 1 (2018) taking bringing faculty and fellows to Thailand, Year 2 (2019) taking place in Japan, Year 3 (2020) in Korea, and Year 4 (2021) in China.

A pilot clinic, which concentrated on development, sustainability, and food systems in Singapore and Malaysian Borneo, was held in January 2016. The group, eight faculty members and 10 students from the Colleges, along with students and a staff member from Yale-NUS, visited an palm oil plantation and met with members of the Dayak Tribes in Borneo.

In Borneo, the group’s trip to the plantation offered rare insight to the intercultural transaction of what Pomona Prof. Char Miller calls the “here” and “there.” Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis, served as a Co-Principal Investigator during the exploration phase and recognized the cross-cultural and transnational dynamics of urbanization. “Actions in one place,” Miller said, “have repercussions in another.”

Miller, now in an advisory committee role, is also editor-in-chief of EnviroLab Asia. The publication, a digital volume of student and faculty scholarship resulting from the Luce Foundation’s preliminary grant, investigates the complicated reality of globalization. “The differing insights,” Miller said, “are a reminder of the powerful – and priceless – impact these funds have had on academic life in Claremont.”

As EnviroLab Asia’s next phase begins in the forthcoming academic year, the long-term goal, as Professor Park explained, will be to create more areas of on-campus student opportunity in environmental studies across the Consortium. While the scope of project’s four-year term is highly ambitious, Park, Williams, Los Huertos, and their colleagues are working diligently to ensure that the grant provides “a variety of educational and research opportunities for CMC – and 5C – students.”

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