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College of Natural Resources Receives
UC Berkeley Educational Initiatives Award

for American Environmental and Cultural History Course

By Steve Tollefson

Imagine a virtual "meeting of the minds" between John Muir and Steve Jobs. American Environmental and Cultural History, an innovative and highly popular course, represents just such a convergence--by teaching undergraduates about environmental leaders of yesteryear using products developed by leaders of today's technology revolution.

In recognition of the course's excellence, the UC Berkeley campus has chosen the College of Natural Resources as recipient of this year's Educational Initiatives Award. Designed to complement the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award (which has been given to several CNR faculty in the past), the Educational Initiatives Award is a $10,000 cash award presented annually to a department or other campus unit for distinctive contributions to undergraduate education that may serve as a model for others.

American Environmental and Cultural History is one of several "stellar courses," which receive support from the dean's discretionary fund and gifts to the Berkeley Fund for Natural Resources to incorporate the latest technologies and increase the numbers of graduate student instructors and guest speakers. The Educational Initiatives Award is a direct result of the college's stellar course program, according to CNR Dean Gordon Rausser.

The course is taught by Carolyn Merchant, Chancellor's Professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics; and Sandra Marburg, a lecturer with the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and University Extension. Merchant developed the original course, and Marburg modified it for the online version. It is offered by Merchant in the classroom in the fall semester, and an entirely online version is offered by Marburg in the spring through the UC Berkeley Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning in the spring. Both versions of the course represent new achievements in computer-based learning and offer a model for other similar initiatives on and off campus.

The course addresses how different cultural groups, including American Indians, Europeans, and African Americans, have perceived, used, managed and conserved the North American natural environment from Colonial times to the present, and how their activities and attitudes have changed over time. Content explored, from prehistory to the present, includes pueblo culture in the Southwest, tobacco farming and soil exhaustion in the Southeast, the Gold Rush, the early wilderness protection movement and the contemporary environmental movement.

These topics are taught not only through lectures and textbooks (including Merchant's extremely influential book Major Problems in American Environmental History), but through the use of presentation software and audio and video technologies that make the material more accessible and dynamic for students. These technologies also make the course highly interactive, enabling students to conduct online discussions of topics raised and contribute to course content by posting additional course materials online. A popular feature of the class is the cyberspace "side trips" students take to related websites, including ones for Chaco Culture National Historic Park and the Anasazi solar calendar. One student calls its website "the most useful, well-planned and aesthetically pleasing course website I have ever used."

Faculty, too, give the course high marks. "The deft interweaving of natural and cultural history is remarkable and almost unique on our campus," says Professor Mitchell Breitwieser, former director of the UC Berkeley American Cultures Center. "I can’t think of another venue in which Berkeley students can encounter the scientific and the humanistic so convincingly presented as a single intellectual endeavor."

"The response from students towards this course has been overwhelmingly positive," Dean Rausser says, "with many class evaluations noting the increased depth of understanding which resulted from better note taking and more organized class materials."

Merchant notes that the course resulted from a collaboration involving several other faculty and staff of the Berkeley Multimedia Research Center and University Extension.

"The course has benefited from the efforts of creative, dedicated graduate students, faculty, and staff and from enthusiastic undergraduates who have developed materials, suggested changes, and debated ideas online and in the classroom," she says. "Grants from the College of Natural Resources and Berkeley campus Committee on Teaching were also indispensable."

The campus honored the recipients of both awards at a ceremony in late April featuring remarks by Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ, Academic Senate Chair Robert Spear, and Alumni Association President Alfredo Terrazzas.

For more about the campus course American Environmental and Cultural History, visit its website at To enroll in ESPM 160AC online, visit