Making It Personal

Five questions with Dan Sherman, professor of environmental policy and decision making

From investigating nuclear waste disposal methods to discovering the role inequality plays in sustainability efforts, Dan Sherman’s research interests seem wide-reaching, but his work always comes back to people. As a professor of environmental policy and decision making, Sherman is focused on how policies affect the people living on this planet, including his students. His newest textbook, Environmental Science & Sustainability, was published last fall and specifically addresses how students can envision their role in the environment and the policies surrounding it.

Q: Why is a more person-centered approach to environmental policy important?
A: Environmental policies—like all policies—are decisions made by authorities designed to influence behavior. So, when we look at them closely, we should be curious about questions of power—who is exercising power (and who is not) and who benefits from that exercise of power (and who is harmed by it). Environmental policies determine the distribution of environmental harms and benefits. And, because policies often reflect, act on, and feed the systemic inequalities in society, they end up creating and reinforcing environmental racism and other kinds of environmental injustice. This is evident across many, if not most, areas of environmental policy, from waste disposal to conservation and pollution policies.

Q: How do you translate that approach to the classroom?
A: I think most students are aware, and feel the urgency, of environmental problems quite intensely. Consider the fact that according to Gallup polling, 70% of Americans ages 18–34 say that they worry about global warming a fair to great amount. The challenge for teaching and learning in environmental science and policy is how to help us all situate ourselves in the midst of this urgency. I think it is much easier to learn concepts when we understand why they are important and how they relate to us. 

Q: A significant piece of your teaching has revolved around field trips, particularly to local areas such as the Tacoma Tideflats and Mount Rainier National Park. How do these trips help the material “stick” for students? 
A: First, I think it is important to recognize that not everything that is taught in a course needs to “stick” for the long term. There are things that you want students to know and be able to do long after they graduate—big ideas, key questions, and fundamental skills—and there are many things that are just worth being familiar with in the context of the class. I think of teaching and learning as providing opportunities for meaningful shared experiences that we will remember long after many factual details have faded. On field trips, I can build a sense of camaraderie with students as we explore firsthand how policies and decisions shape the physical environment around us.

Q: With so much learning normally happening outside of the classroom, what has it been like trying to rethink education during this time?
A: Providing a virtual version of those field trips has been my biggest challenge. However, it has also been exhilarating (if exhausting) to learn new skills and use new tools—particularly filmmaking. With the help of my co-teachers and many community members, I’ve made virtual field trip movies that give a sense of traveling to a place, exploring it, and engaging with people working on that place. It is a lot more work, and I would still rather take my students outside for a field trip, but I think it has been a positive teaching and learning experience for all of us.

Q: When you’re not teaching or working on research, what are you doing for fun? 
A: I like to run, climb, and do all sorts of outdoor activities. This keeps me exploring new places and developing deeper understandings of familiar places—some of which end up as field trip sites or examples in class. I also really love to cook and eat. In fact, sometimes I think I run so much just so I can truly enjoy my passion for cooking and eating large quantities of delicious food.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Jan. 17, 2021