Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dr. Michael Mueller: Ecojustice Begins with Awareness...& Science Prom!

Newhalen students observing birds and tracking data

I have to admit, if you asked me to define “ecojustice” prior to meeting Michael Mueller, I might have offered something about young men with big beards in Patagonia gear strapping themselves to Redwood trees to keep loggers at bay. And although there’s a time and place for people to engage in that manner, it only takes a few moments in Dr. Mueller’s office at UAA’s College of Education to set me straight.  

“Ecojustice refers to justice for both humanity and nature. Where ‘social justice’ focuses on justice for humanity, ecojustice focuses on larger matters that encompass the natural world, too.” As the ADN described in a piece focusing on Mueller’s work last year, “anthropocentric thinking -- humans as the most important species -- has been championed at the expense of the planet, for profit and personal and corporate advancement.” Ecojustice, on the other hand, strives to teach students about our species’ “relationships and interconnections” with the natural world.

And as an instructor tasked each term with training a new generation of educators who will go into their communities and challenge young people, his dual passions for ecojustice and the climate-change issues currently impacting Alaska come with an added measure of responsibility attached.  

 “In education, this interest carries over into an exploration of how we can best prepare teachers to engage students in issues specific to that ‘eco’ piece.”

Referring to it as only an “interest”, however, risks selling Mueller’s efforts short. Within the space of a few moments with Dr. Mueller, you’re magnetically drawn into a shared, deep engagement with his pursuits. His excitement for both ecojustice and education prove infectious.

It’s hardly surprising then that five years ago, Ed Lester – the principal of Newhalen School in Illiamna and then a stranger to Dr. Mueller – walked through the door of his office unannounced and proposed they work together. Lester, an alumnus of UAA who had become familiar with Mueller’s work, wanted to create engaging, science-based projects to help cultivate and foster student awareness of the environmental issues specific to their region.

“Every year, all the village schools that comprise the Lake & Penn and Bristol Bay Borough come together for a week. There are twelve schools represented in the region with close to 120 students in attendance for that week of activities together. They participate in Native Olympics and talent shows, and take all their meals together. And all the teachers and students from all the schools camp out in school for the week…” he chuckles and then adds, “It’s madness.”

Naknek Mural

When Ed approached Michael, the schools were interested in building structured academic events into their annual gathering. Ed and Michael brainstormed a variety of ways they could offer learning experiences that would cultivate learning and foster an awareness of issues critical to their lives in regions experiencing the effects of climate change, for example.

It was the beginning of a thriving and ongoing partnership that continues today.

In that first year, Mueller offered the kids workshops ranging from forensics (how to read a blood spatter), to writing and recording a PSA for local radio. That week, the students ended their week of academic focus with a dance. Mueller named the week of activities the “Science Prom.”  

In the five years since launching his first Science Prom the topics have remained engaging and far-ranging – students can take part in activities from cold water survival to building bridges; making robotic arms to orienteering with a compass; radio-tagging salmon to building and setting off Estes rockets.

Students learning forensics during Science Prom
Lake & Penn students readying to launch Estes rockets with Dr. Mueller
Readying for the big Science Prom end-of-week dance!

As an added bonus, Mueller now involves his graduate students in the Lake and Penn and Bristol Bay Borough events. Five years later, presented with twice annual science-themed intensives – one in September, and another in April – his students have become a reliable and active mainstay in the program.

But how does team-building robotic arms, studying bioluminescence, and learning how to write PSAs relate to ecojustice?

“We begin by offering the kids opportunities they don’t normally have in each of their separate, remote locations,” Mueller offers, “And we’ve worked to motivate them with memorable experiences, too. Then, by immersing and involving them in different group projects with a scientific focus, we’re involving them in group decision-making processes that could lead to further involvement.”

In the remote regions comprising the Lake and Penn school district, in which standards of living and the local economy regularly fluctuate with, for example, the market price of salmon, Mueller knows that kids need to be thinking about the impacts of local decisions on their lives and their futures.

“Consider Newhalen,” he offers, the school with which he’s become most involved: “They’re the headquarters for the Pebble Mine.”

Newhalen can learn to write and then air PSAs on their own school's radio station

The proposed mine project, of course – as no one seems more aware than Mueller – continues to prove a controversial and heated topic throughout Alaska. It's widely known, for example, that the mine could potentially impact the largest migration of sockeye salmon in the entire world.

 “We don’t go into Newhalen and tell the students what they should think about the issue. After all, from where many of them are situated, Pebble’s brought jobs to the area, they’ve paved the roads – but there’s also a noticeable tension around the issue throughout the community, too. So, our first priority is to teach the kids that as legitimate stakeholders in their communities, it’s critical that they make informed decisions. No matter what they decide about something like Pebble Mine, they need to know how to participate more fully in the decision-making process, right? So, in our work, we’re cultivating learning experiences that will give them skills to engage with any issues they’re encountering.”

            Presently, Mueller and his students are hard at work work building a bird habitat in Newhalen – an effort that will allow Newhalen youths to start collecting data on the many bird varieties local to the area, as well as the diverse migrating species. His hope is that as Newhalen youths compile data on the birds in their region, he’ll be able to help other village sites in the Lake and Penn district develop their own bird habitats. Taken together, as the region’s schools compile and exchange data over the considerable distances separating them, students will be able to close those gaps between them by sharing critical information about what birds are migrating where, how they’re responding to climate changes, and more.

            In other words, an exercise in ecojustice – providing youths with continuing, “real time” opportunities that explore and reveal our undeniable relationship and interconnectedness to the natural world.

Dr. Mueller will offer a presentation on his bird habitat project with Newhalen students at the CCEL's Community Engagement Conference at UAA on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 9:30am, in RH110.

- Jonathan Bower, MSW student, CCEL

Newhalen youths observing birds and recording data

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Introduction to Civic Engagement - Did you know?

Did you know that?

In our CEL A292 Introduction to Civic Engagement class last fall, students said that they had made above average growth or a great deal of growth in these critical thinking skills and understanding society and culture on a scale for an end of semester survey:
  • Analyzing other people’s ideas and proposed solutions. 100% 
  • Contributing to a team to solve problems.86%  
  • Systematically reviewing their own ideas about how to approach an issue.86%  
  • Creatively thinking about new ideas or ways to improve things.86%
  • Discussing complex problems with co-workers to develop a better solution. 86%  
  • Seeing the relationships between local, national, and global issues. 86%   
  • Communicating effectively with people who see things differently than I do. 86%  
In the same course, students agreed or strongly agreed with the following statements asking about their engagement with community issues: 
  • Helped me to know about opportunities to become involved in the community.100%
  • Integrating service into a college course is a very good idea. 100%
  • It is very important to me to help other people during my lifetime. 100%
  • Gave me knowledge and skills to address community issues. 100%
  • The nature of this class helped motivate me to be the best student I can be.100%
  • I will be able to apply learning from this class to solve real problems in society. 100%
  • Provided me with skills/knowledge that I can use in my career. 100%
  • I participated in class discussion more frequently than other classes. 86%
  • Had a positive impact on my plans to complete my college degree 86%
  • Would highly recommend that other students take the class. 86%
  • Caused me to feel more concerned about social problems. 86%
  • Appreciate how my community is enriched by cultural/ethnic diversity. 86%
  • Better able to discuss controversial issues with civility and respect. 86%
  • Activities provided opportunity to explore and clarify values 100%
At the end of the fall semester, one student shared with me: 
I’ve never been asked to think about who I am going to be as a member of my community. I’ve thought about who I was going to be as a teacher, but I’m graduating now, and I’ve never thought before now about who will I be for my community!

I’m proud of our students, many of whom are freshmen or sophomores and who take on completing 20 hours over 10 weeks of the semester in one of a group of community agencies that we have agreements with. And I’m proud of our Civic Engagement curriculum, which pushes students to grow in their personal, academic, and civic roles and development of a civic identity. 
Our fall classes are open now with three sections of CEL A292, one of which is online (the online class participates in activities of advocacy and marketing with social media for organizations, rather than direct service). In addition, CEL A392 offers an experience in learning about philanthropy and reviewing actual grant applications to award $10,000 to four organizations ($2,500 each) at the end of the semester, and CEL A395 is a Civic Engagement Internship with a community organization. For more information, contact Judith Owens-Manley at 786-4087 or or visit the CCEL website at

Monday, November 24, 2014

Anchorage Point-in-Time Homeless Youth Count

Kathi Trawver and Donna Aguiniga, School of Social Work, created a project with Covenant House, Alaska Youth Advocates and Parachutes with their mini-grant from the Center for Community Engagement & Learning last spring semester.  Twenty-five undergraduates assisted with the project, along with a Community-Engaged Student Assistant (CESA) who supported the faculty in recruiting and training community volunteers.  Volunteers were trained to conduct an assertive point-in-time outreach count of Anchorage's homeless youth. Trawver and Aguiniga provided data entry and analysis, and presented results to community partners.

Covenant House in Anchorage, AK 

Trawver and Aguiniga described their project as follows: 

We developed this research project in response to a compelling community need (i.e., a gross undercount of homeless youth during federally mandated annual point-in-time counts) that resulted in an opportunity for approximately 25 students to become engaged in their community.   In partnership with community providers, faculty developed an outreach training and survey instrument. On January 29, 2014, student volunteers paired with an agency outreach worker conducted outreach interviews across the city over a 24-hour time-period. During the count, we helped manage a centralized deployment center, inputted all returned data, and provided support and debriefing to returning volunteer students.   

Point in Time Survey for Homeless Youth 2014 

Students involved in this project became intimately aware of the complex issues related to homeless youth in our community. Through training sessions provided by community professionals and formerly homeless youth and conducting community outreach interviews, students gained valuable field experience under the mentorship of professional community partners and UAA faculty.   Our team conducted more than 70 interviews of homeless youth, almost double the number who were identified the prior year! Following the event, we conducted an analysis of the data and presented aggregated results to our community partners. Student volunteers also assisted agency staff by taking part in an outreach after-party for participating youth.   

Trawver and Aguiniga explained that community providers don't often have data given back to them in a way in which they can use it for effective program planning.  This project gave the community partners control over the data that was collected and allowed them to receive results quickly.  They plan a continued collaboration and another outreach project in January 2015.  They also plan to publish the results of their collaboration and present this as a project model to state homeless providers and policy makers.  

For more information, contact or  

Friday, September 5, 2014

A New Semester - Fall 2014!

As the new semester begins, so much gets underway - preparing for classes, whether you're faculty or students, getting all of the paperwork done and accurate, bringing our attention once again to teaching and learning, and in our case, engaging. 

Community engagement runs the risk of being today a buzz phrase, words rendered meaningless by the countless ways and settings in which it is used.  In the Center for Community Engagement & Learning and in our attempts to create a culture of engagement throughout the university, community engagement is, as defined by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity."  

Carnegie goes on to explain the purpose of community engagement as, "the partnership of college and university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good."  This is a tall order, but is, in fact, what many faculty at UAA are inspired about creating in their courses, with their students. 

 It's also often what inspires students, as the following selected quotes demonstrate: 

     “As I have taken a few sociology classes and read books on environmental justice, the problems      that arise with a low-income life are not unfamiliar to me.  However, it is completely different to      read about than it is to actually see it.  The 20 hours I spent at the Boys and Girls Club provided me with legitimate connections to the world I had only previously heard about as statistics.”

    “The [service learning] experience at RAIS left me with a new friend and a new understanding.  The refugees did not simply receive help from me, but they taught me about myself.”

      “After taking this class I have learned that social problems can indeed be fought.  Not every problem has a clear solution or can be solved in a single step.  Each step gets us closer to fixing the problem and every step counts.”

Read more in Teaching Excellence in an Engaged University, a publication that highlights stories of engagement across disciplines at UAA on our website at 

Friday, April 11, 2014

An Engaged University - Provost Elisha "Bear" Baker

This month we have a "guest blogger" -- our Provost, Bear Baker 

As a new graduate of Clemson University, I was hired as faculty in the mid-1970s, just as the textile industry went off-shore.  It was the only industry left in South Carolina, and it was a real crush.  The state legislature turned to the university and said, “Help us to create an economy.”  That’s how I’ve viewed what a university is for, first as a new faculty member, then as Dean of the College of Business & Public Policy, and now as the chief academic administrator.  

All of my life I’ve been out there engaging with community and getting students engaged.  It’s good for the community and good experience for our students.  My philosophy is, “If we’re not connected to community, why should our community see value in our university?”  Universities are being challenged more than ever to contribute to their communities.  As Provost of UAA, I recognize that we are one of those universities. 

We are grateful to have a community that works with us and with our students, getting them involved in real-life projects.   A group of civil engineering students this spring is working with their professor and the Fairview Community Council to design a better snow removal process, a critical need here in Anchorage.  Our nursing students are traveling out to rural communities in Alaska and doing health screenings for youngsters to keep Headstarts open.    In every college of the university, I can find projects and partnerships that remind me of the work our community and state are doing with us and the difference it makes for all of us.

We want to make very visible our commitment to improving student success while helping with real needs in the community and getting our faculty involved too.  I’m committed to working with the Municipality of Anchorage and the State of Alaska in the same way that I was committed in my early days as faculty for Clemson University and the state of South Carolina.  I’ve never stopped doing that.  “How can we help, and in what ways can we be partners to realize the very best outcomes for our students, our communities and the state of Alaska?”  

We’ve become an engaged university, and we welcome input from everyone – students, faculty and community members - as to what more we can do to be in this reciprocal partnership – one community, one university.  The Center for Community Engagement & Learning is a portal to our university for community engagement, as well as my office.  UAA was one of only sixty-two universities nationwide to receive designations from The Carnegie Foundation for curricular engagement and outreach and partnerships in 2006 and again in 2010. This year, UAA will apply again for that designation as “An Engaged University,” trusting that our many and deep relationships with community organizations and state agencies in Alaska demonstrate our commitment to community partnership.  The Carnegie recognition nationwide affirms the value of the opportunities that we have in working together. 

Provost  Elisha “Bear” Baker 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Community Engagement in Action: The Civic Health of a Campus

Civic Health can be defined as "the measure of the civic, social, and political strength of a community" (consensus definition of the American Democracy Project campuses, 2013).  Our 22 campuses engaged together with the ADP Civic Health Initiative project are reviewing our campus civic health as well as the civic health of our communities.  Students in CEL A392 Advanced Civic Health: Community Inquiry & Action, began a review of the community-engaged courses at UAA in Fall of 2013, and the project will continue in Spring 2014.  The students were involved in a participatory action research project that had them working with our Provost-appointed Community Engagement Task Force at UAA.  The Task Force was working on an instrument to designate community-engaged courses and also attempting to collect information on the courses at UAA that would already be designated as community-engaged.

Students noted that as community engagement has become more prevalent in education, universities across the country are measuring the civic health of their campuses (Malm & colleagues, 2013).  UAA received the Carnegie designation for Community Engagement as part of the original cohort in 2006 and was re-designated in 2010.  Currently, UAA as well as other universities are invited to re-apply for designation for 2015 and every 5 years thereafter. The Foundation defines community engagement as "the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity"(

UAA Community Engagement Task Force meeting photo
Professor Tracey Burke chairs the Community Engagement Task Force
Integrating community experience with student's academic work is thought to be one of the best ways to prepare students for civic life (Kellogg Commission, 1999), and service-learning is designated by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) as one of six high impact practices.  Students in CEL A392 determined that the UAA campus offers 109 community-engaged courses in 28 different departments with 82 different instructors.  More than 2,000 students enrolled in community-engaged courses in 2012-13.  This is an underestimate of enrollment in community engagement, since response is voluntary, and we have not heard from all faculty.  Students in the course worked with other universities as well to review other methods of designating courses as community engaged and proposed a designation system to the Community Engagement Task Force that will now be forwarded for approval to the UAA Faculty Senate.

So what will the Spring CEL A392 students do?  The spring class will continue to work with the Task Force as a "community partner" and develop a survey of the 82 faculty who are designated as having taught a community-engaged course in 2012-13.  The survey will be short and designed to determine the number of hours that students devote to community engagement, the outcomes for students and community partners, and the type of work that students do while engaged in the community.

Malm, E., Rademacher, N., Dunbar, D., Harris, M., McLaughlin, E., U Nielsen, C. (2013).  Cultivating community-engaged faculty: The institution's role in individual journeys. Journal of Community Engagement and Higher education, 5, 1, pp. 24-35. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Civic Engagement and Local Food

This is a guest post by Kyla Byers, AmeriCorps VISTA with the Food Policy Council and the Alaska State Division of Agriculture.  Kyla is a 2011 graduate of UAA. 

    I started at UAA in 2003 with only the vague idea that I was interested in “environmental issues.” I remained undeclared for 5 years, taking GERs and other courses that interested me. It wasn’t until my two study abroad trips, where I was exposed to new ways of thinking and living, that I developed an interest in sustainable agriculture. When I returned to UAA, I enrolled in the fledgling Environment and Society major. It appealed to me because it focused on both natural sciences and social sciences. It ultimately looked at how humans interact with their environment—including how we grow, distribute and consume food. The more I became involved in food issues, the more I became interested in local food as a means, not only for environmental stewardship, but also for improving food security and nutrition.

    A few civic engagement courses were requirements of my major and piqued my interest in pursuing the Certificate in Civic Engagement as well. Those courses helped me realize that I could be more effective in the work I wanted to do if I became a more engaged member of society. I soon discovered the reward and the sense of purpose gained from actively working in cooperation with others to directly and positively affect my community.

    After graduating, I was lucky enough to find an AmeriCorps VISTA opportunity that exactly matched my interests. Working with the Food Policy Council and the Division of Agriculture, I coordinate the Farmers Market Quest Program which sets markets up to accept SNAP benefits (aka food stamps). As a VISTA, it is my purpose to address issues faced by low-income communities. My work not only helps improve wellness among low-income Alaskans, but supports local farmers who are key to our state’s food security. Because of this position, I have become more ingrained in Alaska’s local food community and had extensive networking and learning opportunities working with people from state government, non-profits and food pantries to farmers, market managers and those on food assistance. I credit my CEL courses with garnering interest in this type of work and see my VISTA position as a huge stepping stone towards a meaningful career advocating for local, nutritious foods.

    As a full circle experience, this summer I had an Environment and Society major, also earning the Certificate in Civic Engagement, who came and completed her Civic Engagement Internship with us at the Farmers Markets!