Dr. Milton McClaren on Environment, Sustainability and the Need for Effective Education and Communication to Respond to Climate Change

December 10, 2020

Dr. Milton McClaren is an active Emeritus Professor of Education in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University (SFU) where he teaches in the Curriculum and Instruction Ecological Education MA program. He is a Cohort Supervisor in the Doctoral Program in Education (Ed.D.) in which his students are senior administrators in the British Columbia (BC) K-12 and post-secondary education systems, or are involved in the environment, justice, health care, and non-governmental agency sectors. He is an Adjunct faculty member in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University (RRU) where he teaches and supervises MA students in the Environmental Education and Communications program.

Dr. McClaren was involved in the development of the environmental education programs at both SFU and RRU and is a recipient of the B.C. Minister’s Environment Award, the Canadian EECOM Award, the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Certificate of Merit, and the Taft Campus Award from the University of Northern Illinois for his work in the field of environmental education. He was a Fellow at the Aspen Global Change Institute, a forum supported by NASA which brought together teachers from Canada and the US with leading scientists in the fields of global change. He has written and developed curricula in the area of Global Climate Change and received an Award of Recognition from the BC School Superintendents Association and a Certificate of Achievement from the Canadian Association of School Administrators for his work in professional education. He is a holder of the Maxwell Cameron Medal in Education of the BC Teachers’ Federation.

Please tell us a little about yourself including your academic and professional backgrounds.

I am an Emeritus professor in the Faculty of Education at SFU and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University. My undergrad educational background was in Education, with an emphasis on the psychology of learning. My doctorate was in Biological Sciences with a research focus on microbial and fungal genetics. I was appointed by SFU in 1967 with a joint appointment between the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Science (Biology). I have done research and supervised students in basic biology and in curriculum development. I was President of the SFU Faculty Association, Director of Continuing Studies for SFU (first Director—appointed when Continuing Studies was established), and I have been Director of the Professional Development Program in the Faculty of Education, and Director of Field Programs, also in the Faculty of Education. I currently supervise Ed.D. students and teach in the EcoEd cohort of Master of Education (MEd) program at SFU, as well as supervising thesis students in the MA in Environmental Education and Communications program at RRU.

When and how did you become interested in environmental research?

When I first came to SFU the Department of Biology had become very much involved in both environment related research and in public education and action related to the environment. Several of my colleagues had created a multimedia film production describing some of the major environmental challenges in BC at the time, and I travelled the province, with my colleague Dr. Glen Geen, making presentations of the short film “UGH!” to high schools around BC and also making presentations to public meetings in various cities. In working with pre-service and in-service teachers in the Faculty of Education, we took a lead role in the early 1970s in the recently defined field of environmental education. Also, in the 70s, my colleagues and I were involved with the establishment of the North Vancouver Outdoor School (now the Cheakamus Centre) and the McQueen Lake Environmental Studies Centre in Kamloops. In 2020 we are still involved with both these centres. I was able to have the SFU Senate agree to the establishment of a Minor in Environmental Education (EE) and to an emphasis in EE within the MA program. Both these initiatives remain in place today under the leadership of Dr. David Zandvliet. I was a Fellow at the Aspen Global Change Institute for five years and a member of the US Steering Committee for project WILD, as well as being a member of the Canadian Council for UNESCO. In each of these areas my colleagues and I were deeply involved in the field of environmental education, and a number of my graduate students at SFU did their MA theses in topics related to EE and Climate Change in particular.

Please share your current research with us.

In addition to my involvement in establishing schools and centres in BC, graduate programs at SFU focusing on environmental education, and my membership in international committees as mentioned before, I was also involved in the creation of the MA program in Environmental Education and Communication at RRU. That program is now in its 20th year of operation and more than 150 students have completed their thesis degrees at RRU. My students and I are currently involved in thesis research in Marine Environmental Education (Ocean Bridges Project) and in developing a high school-level curriculum in Environment and Outdoor Education. I am also involved in a project to complete a history of the development of the McQueen Lake  Environmental Study Centre in Kamloops. The project is designed to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Centre. In 2019 the Journal of Environmental Education published a paper that I authored titled "Revisioning Environmental Literacy in the Context of a Global Information and Communications Ecosphere." The paper illustrates my continuing interests in how environmental education and communication will be influenced and implemented in the context of the growth of social media and other multi-media.

You are a member of the Advisory Board of the Climate Adaptation project. Tell us about the project and your role in it.

The Climate Change Adaptation project has been inspired through the leadership of Dr. Vivian Forssman and Dr. Robin Cox at RRU. The project involves collaboration among several BC Universities and Colleges, including SFU and a number of business and trade organizations in BC. The Adaptation Learning Network is in contract with Natural Resources Canada’s Building Regional Adaptation Capacity and Expertise (BRACE) program and the BC Ministry of Environment Climate Action Secretariat. The mission of the Advisory Board is to provide advice and inform courses with the latest evidence, knowledge, and practices in climate change adaptation and low carbon resilience; decolonizing practices and approaches; CPD training and open learning; and knowledge mobilization and stakeholder engagement. Specifically, the Board will “inform the courses and other outputs of the Project, so that they are relevant, current, accessible, useful, and represent as much as possible the latest available evidence for integrating a consideration of current and future climate in adaptation decisions and practices” (Climate Adaptation Project, 2020). The Board will also engage with partners involved in the Climate Adaptation Project, including Indigenous communities and professional learning communities. The Board was formed in late 2019 and has been delayed in further meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but will hold virtual meetings in the fall of 2020. One of my specific roles will be to foster communication between the post-secondary community and professional organizations in the K-12 community in BC.

What suggestion would you like to give to educators and practitioners?

At this time the attention of many educators has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been important to develop a better understanding of effective communication and education with a wide spectrum of the public about the pandemic, related effects, and policy decisions made to address it. The current pandemic will eventually fade, but the issues of climate change will continue to have relevance and create demands for effective actions both to mitigate and respond to direct climate change effects. Addressing climate change will create a very significant need for effective educational programs addressed to a wide spectrum of audiences. Current practitioners will be challenged to upgrade their personal understanding of climate changes and their implications for community resilience and effective response in policy and actions. During the pandemic we can find excellent examples of effective communication and policy actions, and we can also find very distressing examples of the impacts of poor communication on public behaviours. There will be a need for educators at all levels to become involved in environmental education, and in education about climate change in particular. Effective education and communication will require an improved understanding of the powers and limitations of a wide range of communication media and that will demand educators to develop new skills and perspectives. Many of us have been on a very steep learning curve while in the process of moving into online learning environments during the pandemic and that need is unlikely to diminish in the future even without the pandemic.

How are you enjoying life after retirement?

Given my age I get this question from time to time. My answer is that I am not retired. My work schedule and projects allow some leisure and breaks away from various demands; but I enjoy the work that I do, the people I work with, and the new communities to which I’m introduced. As long as I am healthy, I expect to stay involved. I believe that one secret to good health is to stay active and to be involved in a range of diverse social connections. I have two professionally active daughters and five very active grandchildren so that helps in seeing new ideas and activities.


McClaren, M. (2019). Revisioning environmental literacy in the context of a global information and communications ecosphere. The Journal of Environmental Education, 50 (4-6), 416-435. DOI 10.1080/00958964.2019.1687408

Appendix A. Advisory Board Terms of Reference. Adaptation Learning Network. September 15, 2020.