Environmental research centre, field school in Africa advance SFU’s global partnerships

SFU students at SFU’s Climate Change and Community Resilience Field School
SFU students at SFU’s Climate Change and Community Resilience Field School, located at the Arusha Climate and Environmental Research Centre in Arusha, Tanzania.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) and Aga Khan University (AKU) have partnered on the Arusha Climate and Environmental Research Centre (AKU-ACER), a highlight of the growing relationships between SFU, AKU and the broader Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

A new research centre unveiled by SFU and AKU will provide opportunities for research partnerships on community-centred climate innovation, student exchanges and other collaborations between the two institutions.

The centre was launched during a visit to the region last week by SFU President Joy Johnson and university delegates, who met with AKU partners to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

The MOU builds on a longstanding partnership between SFU, AKU and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and enhances the opportunities for joint projects in East Africa.

The two universities signed an MOU in 2022 to deliver on the universities’ shared commitments to address global issues such as health and climate change, and deepen SFU’s engagement in Africa. Both institutions are also committed to advancing the United Nations sustainable development goals.

"Thank you to Aga Khan University for their continued partnership and support," said Johnson. "I truly believe that international collaborations are a critical avenue for creating the inclusive and sustainable future we all want to see."

SFU also entered into a strategic alliance with the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), one of four universities to formalize partnerships with AKU during the signing ceremony. The joint venture will enable knowledge sharing across the universities as they innovate together on strategies for climate protection.

During the ceremony Tanzania’s Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Hon. Prof. Adolf Mkenda noted, "about two-thirds of our population depend on agriculture and climate change makes it difficult to guarantee food security and livelihoods. We believe that scientists can do a lot to minimize this impact and maybe in the long run solve the problems."

AKU President Sulaiman Shahabuddin said the signing marks "the beginning of a new era... defined by two things above all. The search for solutions to the problem of climate change and environmental sustainability. And a commitment to partnering with institutions that share our desire to generate new knowledge that helps the people of Tanzania and East Africa to thrive on a warming planet."

President Johnson also visited SFU’s inaugural Climate Change and Community Resilience Field School, developed through the AKU partnership, where a dozen students are currently engaging in global challenges, focusing on sustainability and the impacts of climate change as it relates to a rural setting.

The field school has already led to joint research projects on community-centred climate innovation and a host of other collaborations. Earlier this year, three SFU students travelled to Arusha to work on the Planting the Seed project which looks at the impact of climate change on agriculture.

"I am thrilled that SFU students will have the unique opportunity to study in Tanzania and engage with the local community to advance climate education and community resilience," said Johnson, who met with SFU students at the new field school during her visit.

As part of her first official visit to Africa Johnson met with AKU President Sulaiman Shahabuddin and visited AKU campuses in Kenya and Tanzania to advance SFU’s priorities and explore new opportunities for joint research, including the commitment to work with international partners on global challenges, like health and climate change.

Field school a transformative student experience

AKU-ACER, home to the new SFU field school, is located in Arusha, Tanzania in an ecological hotspot, with towering Mount Kilimanjaro to the east (though the view is blocked by Mount Meru) and the rich plains of the Serengeti to the west.

At more than 1,500 hectares, this living laboratory was established in 2022 to advance research, experiential learning, and innovation in sustainability and environmentalism.

The research centre is nestled among volcanic mountains and is home to diverse habitats, including flowering jacaranda trees, acacia bushland, grassland, shrub-covered hills, agricultural fields, grevillea-shaded coffee plantation and wooded gardens. There is a wealth of wildlife due to the variety of habitats, with more than 350 species of bird and 26 species of large mammals.

The partnership focuses on environmental education with students developing models and methods for the learning and teaching; evaluating available materials and resources; comparing B.C. Ministry of Education’s guidelines with those published in other jurisdictions; and considering a wide range of perspectives.

"This creates a really authentic cross-cultural experience for students," says SFU professor David Zandvliet, the UNESCO Chair in Bio-cultural Diversity and Education and co-director of the field school. "It’s going to change them. It’s a transformative experience for students to come on international field school, to go live in another country for a month, and be quite immersed in a different way of living."

Having previously run field schools in diverse locations including Indonesia and Haida Gwaii, Zandvliet says the rural setting helps students view the global challenge of climate change from a different perspective than a city like Vancouver, B.C. The impetus for the field school was a 2022 visit to AKU in Nairobi, Kenya by SFU’s Dugan O’Neil, vice-president, research and international, and Naomi Krogman, dean of the Faculty of Environment.

"I’m surprised at how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time and how much I’ve enjoyed learning in such a different format," says Rosie Johnson, an undergraduate student in the School of Resource and Environmental Management. "Attending a field school is not something I ever imagined myself doing but I am so glad I did.

"Most of my studies focus on environmental issues in the Canadian context," she adds, "but this trip has allowed me to gain a better understanding of non-Canadian environmental issues."

Photos: SFU’s Climate Change and Community Resilience Field School

"SFU is thrilled to be collaborating with AKU on research and education at the AKU-ACER. The new environmental field school is the first of many we hope to host at AKU-ACER, which is also a site for joint research projects focused on community-centered climate innovation," says Dugan O’Neil, vice-president research and international. "Our engagements in Arusha and with AKDN offer students and researchers global perspectives in their fields and will help them make a positive and meaningful impact in our communities, and on the planet."