Integrating digital learning with Biden’s Climate Corps
President Biden presides over an Earth Day Summit this week after unveiling the $10 billion Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), a showcase element of the American Jobs Plan to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers.” It is a bold aspiration to tackle climate change, promote social equity and rebuild the post-pandemic economy as part of an ambitious legislation package not seen in most of our lifetimes.
Similar to its 1930s predecessor, the Civilian Conservation Corps, today’s CCC seeks to deliver workforce development opportunities in underserved communities, with an updated mission to ensure a capable, dynamic workforce that can be competitive in future growth industries and to enhance community resilience and advance environmental justice.
It’s an ambitious list. And if our nation is to see a return on this important and sizable investment, work experience alone will not be enough. To truly yield a competitive and enduring labor force, we must couple this new initiative with broad and flexible learning opportunities. There is historical precedent for this that lies in prominent inflection points throughout American postsecondary education: the Morrill Act that established land grant institutions and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the late 1800s; the G.I. Bill of Rights of the late 1940s; the rise of community colleges in the 1970s. Each increased access to and helped democratize postsecondary education. We advocate for nothing less than integrating the new CCC with a current inflection point — reflected in the rise of online, asynchronous, at-scale learning opportunities — to fulfill the promise of access to education and meaningful, well-paid work.
The CCC proposal also addresses America’s desperate need to stem the insidious encroachment of climate change, which threatens our nation’s health and wellbeing, and, disproportionately, our most vulnerable citizens. It offers a strategic approach to protect the nation from extreme heat events, sea level rise, displacement of American citizens from climate-energized hurricanes and longer and more intense wildfires.
How to couple this with next generation training programs?
Enter new learning modalities and credentials. Historically, national service and need-based government-funded scholarship programs were tied to bricks-and-mortar institutions, tied to a semester or a degree. Over the last decade, we have seen the maturation of scalable learning solutions which have the ability to deliver skills and knowledge flexibly and at low-cost to students. The platforms now available could allow participants to simultaneously advance the mission of the corps and to gain proficiency in core competencies including communication, writing, management and mathematics skills. Participants could also further their in-depth STEM knowledge such as environmental engineering, economics of land conservation, renewable energy technologies and even principles health care resilience and public policy. Closely aligning hands-on work with related certificates and degrees can provide the skilled and flexible workforce the nation needs for long-term challenges.
This strategy of coupling work with learning already has bipartisan appeal. A Trump administration report called for a workforce of the future by “creating STEM training and education opportunities for individuals from all backgrounds, including underrepresented, underserved, and diverse populations and individuals from non-STEM backgrounds…” and further called for “employers [and] academic institutions [to] develop programs [for] non-STEM workers with professional competencies.”
How can we act on this grand challenge?
Lean on Silicon Valley and postsecondary institutions to implement public-private partnerships to curate CCC-specific courses and programs existing at-scale educational platforms, especially those such as Coursera, which has a tested workforce recovery initiative.
Build pathways to undergraduate college credit by engaging postsecondary institutions and accreditation partners, especially those ready to build competency-based programs within the work of the corps.
Use the power of collective impact to link work and learning to employment by partnering with employers willing to provide right-to-first-interview and graduate programs ready to accept work and learning as prerequisite requirements for entry to graduate programs in related fields, furthering the participants’ potential for success when their national service is complete.
Measure it all by evaluating work and programs in real-time, allowing adjustments to be made to content and support structures, increasing the probability of successful completion of service, competencies, and credentials.
A flexible, scaled education program within the CCC had the potential to force-multiply the nation’s investment by ensuring a capable, dynamic workforce not only through the merits of a traditional work experience, but through scalable and accessible learning opportunities that result in meaningful, workforce-aligned credentials. The outcomes will fulfill a national mandate to forge future leaders, tempered in national service and schooled in core competencies for growth industries that will drive American competitiveness for decades to come.
Jay Lemery MD is professor of Emergency Medicine and co-director of the Climate & Health Program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine
Deborah Keyek-Franssen PhD is the associate vice president and dean of Online and Continuing Education at the University of Utah.
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