Communicating change in a ‘land of extremes’

In Aurora MacRae-Crerar’s Penn Global Seminar, students are grappling with the impacts of a shifting and unpredictable climate in Mongolia.

mongolian yurts
Yurts, known as gers in Mongolia, were the dwelling of choice during Aurora MacCrae-Crerar's biology doctoral studies there. Now an instructor in the Critical Writing Program, MacRae-Crerar was inspired to craft a Penn Global Seminar focused on how climate change is affecting the country. (Image: Peter Petraitis)

It was a beautiful morning in Mongolia’s Dalbai Valley the day that Aurora MacRae-Crerar was due to launch her doctoral field work. As a Penn graduate student in 2009, she and colleagues were getting ready to set up experiments to evaluate the effect of warming on plants and soil microbes. Then a huge snowstorm hit.

“That was an adventure,” says MacRae-Crerar, now a lecturer in Penn’s Critical Writing Program, in the Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing. “It was at the very beginning of the experiment and we couldn’t set everything up on time. “It was at the very beginning of the experiment and we couldn’t set everything up on time.”

dzuds snowstorm with yurt
A sudden June snowstorm on her first day of Mongolian field work gave MacRae-Crerar an up-close-and-personal experience of the country’s capricious climate. (Image:  Jennifer L. Mortensen)

These unexpected storms, known as dzuds, have become a much more common—and unwelcome—aspect of life in Mongolia in the last few decades, owing to climate change.

Such firsthand experiences are helping animate the Penn Global Seminar that MacRae-Crerar, who earned her Ph.D. from Penn’s Department of Biology in 2016, is teaching this semester, Severe Climate Change and Its Impact on Mongolia.

Originally intended to be a typical Penn Global Seminar, complete with a culminating trip to Mongolia, the course was recast owing to the pandemic. Instead, it’s taken the form of a pilot collaborative online international learning (COIL) course, a format that aims to create a sustained, two-directional connection with experts abroad to forge a meaningful experience for everyone involved.

“The point is not to replace a travel experience,” says Laurie Jensen, assistant director of Penn Abroad. “We’re not going to try to get a student to feel like they’ve been there. Instead it’s about teaching research skills, teaching interpersonal skills, and getting students comfortable with communicating across cultures on different topics.”

Teaching from experience

MacRae-Crerar had seen colleagues in the Critical Writing Program teach Penn Global Seminars in years past and was inspired to design a proposal centered around Mongolia with support from the program’s director, Valerie Ross. Jensen assisted her in refining her syllabus, connecting with Penn faculty whose work touches on Mongolia, and working out exactly how she would incorporate outside experts into the course.

“In a ‘traditional’ COIL course, there would be a parallel class being taught abroad,” Jensen says. “That’s not the case with the Mongolia course, but Aurora has found a kind of middle ground, where students have had significant exchange with guest lecturers, who have become key resources for learning.”

The point is not to replace a travel experience. … Instead it’s about teaching research skills, teaching interpersonal skills, and getting students comfortable with communicating across cultures on different topics. Laurie Jensen, assistant director of Penn Abroad

The course has drawn students from across the University, from Wharton, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Nursing, “all of them are really into sustainability,” MacRae-Crerar says. Confronted with the challenge of building community among the 14 students in a virtual format, MacRae-Crerar has deployed a number of strategies for engagement. She had students fill out “virtual flash cards” before the course with important details about themselves. She also begins each class meeting with an ice-breaker, sometimes related to the course and occasionally more personal.

“One we had recently was, ‘What is a norm you have in a community you’re part of or with a partner or friend?’ We got to hear all about people’s backgrounds, things they do with their families,” MacRae-Crerar says. That conversation fed into a class discussion of norms in the context of writing and critique, exploring the question, “What is ‘good’ writing?”

zoom screen shot
Regular bonding activities, breakout groups, and active discussions have ensured the course remains engaging and participatory, despite the Zoom format. (Image: Courtesy of Aurora MacRae-Crerar)

“Another icebreaker was, ‘What’s a stereotype of where you’re from?’ I’m from New Jersey so there were a lot,” MacRae-Crerar says. “We’ve also shared our favorite self-care strategies,” an acknowledgement of the toll of the pandemic on students.

MacRae-Crerar brings a diverse set of skills to her teaching. As a Ph.D. student she was part of the Research Ambassador Program, and was trained to communicate to difference audiences, from a preschool, a church, and a prison. Afterward she had a stint as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow, writing for a National Public Radio affiliate in California. She’s also been involved in efforts to bridge biology, design, and education students at Penn to teach high school students about synthetic biology. When a position in the Critical Writing Program opened a few years ago, she jumped on the chance to combine her loves of teaching and communicating.

research in mongolia
MacRae-Crerar’s research was part of a long-term ecological study of climate change in Mongolia, headed by Penn’s Peter Petraitis. Other researchers that were part of that project have been guest lecturers in the seminar, including Penn alum Anarmaa Sharkhuu. (Image: Courtesy of Aurora MacRae-Crerar)

MacRae-Crerar sees a connection between her scientific training and teaching students in writing. Just as science courses make use of laboratory sessions, where students team up to help one another through an experiment, she has ensured that her course makes ample use of breakout rooms and peer editing, “to replicate that lab component where you’re talking to each other and problem solving together.”

That collaborative approach has helped Hamad Shah of New York City, a freshman at the Wharton School, feel connected to his classmates, in spite of the Zoom format. “I think the course has done an amazing job at fostering community,” he says.

‘Hotter and drier’

MacRae-Crerar’s studies in Mongolia were part of a National Science Foundation-funded ecological project, headed by biology professor Peter Petraitis, that has engaged numerous Penn faculty and students since 2007. Conducting research there means staying in yurts, waking up, and going in “the backyard,” as they call the expansive steppe bordering Lake Hovsgol, to do science.

mongolian livestock
Sudden winter storms and other climate extremes can kill livestock and threaten the nomadic, pastoralist lifestyles practiced by many Mongolians. (Image: Peter Petraitis)

While a dzud posed a short-lived setback to MacRae-Crerar’s research, the storms pose a serious threat to the many Mongolians who rely on livestock for their livelihoods; the severe weather can wipe out entire herds.

“Mongolia is the land of extremes,” she says. “It’s getting hotter and drier faster than almost any place on earth. And with climate change, you can have some days when it will randomly snow.”

MacRae-Crerar peppers her course with her own experiences, but she has also leaned on guests with extensive experience on the ground in Mongolia to share their own stories of these changes. A married couple, Tuya and Clyde Goulden of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, have spent decades studying the impact of climate change, specifically the effect of heavy rain, on ecosystems and livelihoods in Mongolia. “They would drive all over the steppes of Mongolia interviewing nomadic herders about their experience with weather changes and what was happening,” MacRae-Crerar says.

Penn alum Anarmaa Sharkhuu, who earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science in 2012, and is now a senior lecturer at the National University of Mongolia, has been another enthusiastic collaborator in the class. “I worked in the field with her; she’s incredible. She was the other person who was really into soil,” MacRae-Crerar says. “We’re hoping in the future to have her do a mirror class in Mongolia.”

Sharkhuu has shared with the class how, in spite of evidence to the contrary, “climate deniers are growing like mushrooms in Mongolia.” Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for effective communication to change hearts and minds. She explained how a government leader changed his mind on mitigating climate change when he realized its negative financial impact on his business.

Harjap Singh, a freshman from Princeton, New Jersey, who is passionate about sustainability, has appreciated hearing these perspectives, which are so different from those with which he is familiar.

“Usually when you talk about climate change, it’s as this problem out there in the world, separate and outside of the bubble you live in,” he says. “But when you dive deep down and talk to people in Mongolia and see how bad it’s getting—like seeing storms that used to occur very 10 years happen every year and kill a third of livestock across the country—it shows you how privileged we are and what people are facing in developing countries.”

Because of the time difference between Philadelphia and East Asia, MacRae-Crerar has had to do a bit of scheduling gymnastics to find course meeting times that can accommodate both guest speakers and students. “We had our meeting with Anarmaa in the evening,” she says. “I was nervous the students would be sleepy but it all worked out really well and the students asked such good questions.”

Core skills

In addition to considering the current effects of climate change on the region, the course has delved deeply into the history of the region as well. A close reading of the book “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,” on Khan and his legacy, guided the early weeks.

“I’ve got some real history buffs in the class,” MacRae-Crerar says. “I will tell them, ‘I can talk about microbes and science, but now it’s up to you guys to make connections drawing on your own expertise and interests.’”

urbanization of mongolia
Through different styles of writing, students in the course consider various ways that Mongolia is changing, including increased urbanization. (Image: Peter Petraitis)

For the policy-oriented white paper, students are taking up a variety of issues. Singh and Shah are both examining different aspects of dzuds, while their fellow students are focusing on a variety of other aspects of change in Mongolia, such as urbanization. “The idea is first to put together this objective document that helps readers make an informed decision about the issue on their own,” MacRae-Crerar says. “And the next part is where the students themselves get to take a stand and share their opinoing on the societal issue.”

Through it all, MacRae-Crerar is instilling in her students the key skills of strong writers and communicators. Peer review is a critical component of the course, as students learn to offer critiques without being overly harsh, and to be vulnerable and constructively receive helpful feedback on their work.

“It feels like we’re training the next generation better,” MacRae says. Students craft their writing for different audiences, including on the Penn Abroad blog, as well as in their white paper and an op-ed.

Ultimately, MacRae-Crerar would love to pursue this course with the in-country portion she originally envisioned.

“This virtual format allowed me to solidify some relationships and work again with people who were so essential to my development as a graduate student,” she says. “If we could additionally go to Mongolia, building off of what we have been doing now, that would be incredible.”

fog rolling in over mongolia water

Homepage image: MacRae-Crerar would like to return to Mongolia someday, perhaps with her students in tow, incorporating lessons learned from her virtual teaching experience. Credit: Peter Petraitis