Idaho Influence in California
Online Environmental Science Student Empowers Women’s Education With Community-Based Research
Even though she attends classes online, Taylor Lawrence’s environmental education goes beyond the virtual.
For her environmental science master’s degree at University of Idaho, Lawrence organized a project with Afghan women in Sacramento County, California. With the help of her Environmental Science advisor, Research Associate Professor Karla Eitel, Lawrence is using a hands-on approach to education to empower women in her own community.
“I think our biggest challenge with the climate crisis is the social component of it — creating social change in communities, governments and businesses,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence is using research methods like collaboration-based Participatory Action Research (PAR,) a technique Lawrence learned in online courses with the College of Natural Resources.
PAR seeks to shift the power dynamics in research from the researcher toward the community. The community leads the decision-making process for the research topic and methods, and researchers share results with the community.
Through this method, Lawrence is helping a team of 11 Afghan women conduct their own chosen research project: “Afghan Women Navigating Education in Sacramento County.” During Phase One of the project, the team met five times to establish this topic, focusing in on identifying education barriers and facilitators in Sacramento County.
It is vital that we diversify leadership if we are going to make lasting, equitable changes in the community and for our climate. Taylor Lawrence, environmental science master’s student
The team of women will be enacting local changes that support the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal #4, “Quality Education” which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” and Sustainable Development Goal #5, “Gender Equality,” which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
The team’s focus also supports the Health and Education solution proposed by Project Drawdown, which identifies Health and Education, specifically women’s education, as one of the top carbon reduction methods.
“It has disproportionately been white and often male voices that have been amplified in environmental circles,” Lawrence said. “It is vital that we diversify leadership if we are going to make lasting, equitable changes in the community and for our climate.”
An Empowering Research Approach
According to Lawrence, all the decision-making power is in the hands of the women in the community.
“I try to provide the space, opportunity and research methods to help them research what’s important to them,” Lawrence said.
For Phase Two of the project, five women completed data collection and analyses of barriers and facilitators to education for Afghan women in the Sacramento community. Currently, the team is developing three local-level action recommendations, which are currently being implemented in the community.
The three action plans of Phase Three are:
- To create shareable infographics on education topics that were identified as vital, yet hard to find accurate information on for Afghan women in the community. These include financial aid, community college opportunities, informal language learning options, career and major support, how to work while attending school, and English-Second Language (ESL) classes and levels.
- To create a Women’s ESL Group for women to meet with fluent English speakers and practice their language skills in an activity-based, group approach, such as walks, baking, gardening and volunteering.
- To create a Women’s Support Group for discussion, providing peer academic and career support and facilitating community support networks.
“In the Women’s Support Group, I aim to imbue mindsets focused on pro-environmental impacts. The environment is linked to basically every career path in my mind, and I believe that the health of the environment and society are intimately interconnected: the health of one can improve the health of the other,” Lawrence said.
Several team members hope to support women’s education in Afghanistan someday. As these women achieve their education goals, they have more opportunity to obtain leadership roles and further broaden their impact.
“I expect widespread ripple effects, because the women are highly motivated to continue to help others on their educational journeys,” Lawrence said.
Flexible Online Degree Charts Individual Pathways
Even though she lives in Sacramento, Lawrence feels she has access to the support she needs throughout her education because her professors are always readily available.
“Their guidance has been instrumental for learning the group facilitation techniques, including PAR,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence familiarized herself with this technique in Eitel’s teaching and Professor Chloe Wardropper’s class, Research Methods in the Environmental Social Sciences. Her experience is just one among the growing numbers of online environmental science master’s students charting their own pathways.
“Once I began learning about inequalities of the climate crisis, I knew I wanted to have a bigger impact on my physical and social community,” Lawrence said. “But there wasn’t a local school that worked with my education background and my future education goals. I found U of I among the top ranked online schools.”
Online Degree Helps Environmental Sciences Grow
U of I’s online environmental master’s degree is the best in the country for sustainability and environmental management, according to College Consensus.com and Public Service Degrees.org. The degree program is also ranked second by OnlineU.com and Online Master’s Degrees.org, and third by Intelligent.com.
“We’re attracting students from across the nation and the world, because the word is out that U of I faculty offer first-rate online courses, informed by their own research and scholarship,” said Lee Vierling, Director of the Environmental Science Program and Department Head of Natural Resources and Society.
From Fall 2020 to Fall 2021, graduate enrollment in CNR’s online, non-thesis master’s environmental science degree more than doubled, increasing from 47 to 101 students.
“The online program has given access to being out of state, while the environmental science department is robust and supports students in everything from classes to mental health,” Lawrence said.
“I’m thankful for how the department works with students like me that cannot be there in person.”
Vierling said CNR has created a flexible online platform that supports professionals looking to advance their career or change career directions toward the environmental fields.
“I began this master’s program with the intent of learning how I could have a more significant impact on my community and the climate crisis. Merging my project with my Sacramento friends that I love and admire with the U of I community that I respect has been amazing,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence hopes the experience of this project will enable her to continue to engage with the local community by overlapping social and environmental topics.
“I am confident the team’s women will continue to have widespread impacts in their spheres of influence. They will carry the leadership and planning skills they developed during this project forward with them into their education, careers and community engagement activities,” Lawrence said.
Story by Kelsey Evans, CNR writer.
Photos Contributed by Taylor Lawrence, CNR master’s student.
Published June 2022.