There are many ways to design your planetary health course. The goal of this section is to provide you with guidance and examples of how educators at institutions around the world have designed their courses, so that you are able to develop a rich and rigorous course for your own context.
Here are two examples of planetary health syllabi for courses taught at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.
→ Harvard University Undergraduate Course 2018
→ University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health Postgraduate Course 2018
The overarching structure of your course, meaning the total number, frequency and duration of sessions, forms the critical scaffolding from which we will begin to build.
When considering your overarching structure (e.g. a week-long course versus a semester-long course, 20 sessions of 60 minutes each versus 12 sessions of 120 minutes each), also consider your grading system, examination schedule and any school holidays.
Organize Your Course
There are a multitude of ways for you to organize your course. When organizing your course, the audience and your own areas of expertise will help you determine the most effective method of organization. Below you will find two key questions to consider when organizing your course, though there are many other options. These are provided as a starting point.
Ecosystem Transformations and Health Impacts
To provide a framework for understanding the breadth of the field of planetary health, two primary categories – ecosystem transformations and health impacts - comprising a total 15 thematic areas have been defined. The field of planetary health explores the linkages and relationships between thematic areas. In organizing your course, you may find it helpful to organize around either ecosystem transformations or health impacts.
Broad Survey or Topical Concentration
As the field of planetary health encompasses many topics and is so complex, consider the tension between breadth and depth when organizing your course. Depending on your audience, you may opt for your course to take on more of the characteristics of a general survey course, or to provide a deeper dive into a specific thematic area.
Here are two examples of survey style courses. In these courses, each week’s thematic area could be developed into a semester long course.
→ Survey Course organized around Ecosystem Transformations
→ Survey Course organized around Health Impacts
Here are two examples of courses that concentrate on specific topics in the context of planetary health.
→ Course organized around policy and social justice
→ Course organized around law
Topic Selection Per Class
Once you have identified a plan for organizing your course, the selection of specific topics for each class session follows. We encourage you to draw on your own expertise and the expertise of colleagues across departments and disciplines as you begin to identify lecture topics and guest speakers. Each class topic may stand on its own as an individual unit, or you can structure classes as subsequent building blocks. Drawing on your own faculty and faculty in nearby institutions can be a way to simultaneously strengthen your subject expertise and build a community of local scholars and students in planetary health.
These resources may help you to introduce ‘planetary health’ in your course.
→ Introduction to Planetary Health
→ Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health
To populate the content for each class session in your course, we encourage you to review the Cross-Cutting Principles for Planetary Health Education. Consider the story arc within each class and which of these cross-cutting principles you may want to highlight within each lesson plan.
The selection of multi-modal resources and activities provided by thematic area may also help you to compose engaging and varied classes, as they align with the topics selected in the previous step. Within each thematic area, you will find a set of learning objectives for that specific topic that may jumpstart your lesson planning. These thematic areas provide a taxonomic structure to organize the educational content, and provide a sense of the variety of topics covered within the field. It is important to note that all of these thematic areas are interconnected and many overlap; their utility is primarily structural.
The category of Ecosystem Transformations includes the thematic areas that are centered around environmental topics:
→ Water Scarcity
→ Changing Food Systems
→ Biodiversity Shifts
→ Natural Disasters
→ Climate Change
→ Changing Land Use and Land Cover
→ Global Pollution
→ Changing Biogeochemical Flows
The category of Health Impacts includes the thematic areas that are centered around public health topics:
→ Non-Communicable Disease
→ Infectious Disease
→ Mental Health
→ Civil Strife and Displacement
Cross Cutting Principles
As you select the content for your course, we encourage you to explore the 12 Cross-Cutting Principles for Planetary Health Education. These Principles were originally published in the May 2018 issue of The Lancet Planetary Health.
These cross-cutting principles are envisioned as a set of core messages that every educator working to teach planetary health at any level might want to incorporate. They serve as overarching and wide-ranging guiding themes, rather than as specific and measurable objectives that are audience dependent. These principles are intended to serve as a base for curricular development and as a tool to guide education efforts in this emerging field; they should not be considered to be all-encompassing or equally important across all educational settings.
Incorporating these principles in planetary health education efforts around the world will allow for a shared basis of understanding across disciplines, geographies and cultures working to teach planetary health.
(1) Planetary Health Lens: Many current global challenges come into sharper focus when viewed through a planetary health lens. Equipping students with a planetary health lens will enable an understanding and appreciation of the critical linkages, cause-effect relationships and feedback loops between environmental change and human health. Through this lens, students will be able to recognize and explore how human stewardship of the Earth is a primary determinant of future population health.
(2) Urgency and Scale: The field of planetary health is driven by the sheer scale of environmental change and its impacts on human health, and the urgency which this presents to humankind. It is essential that students are able to examine the complexity of interactions through which geographical scale, temporal scale, socioeconomic factors, and political and cultural context shape specific challenges to and potential solutions for sustainable human health outcomes.
(3) Policy: Planetary health is intrinsically policy-oriented. By quantifying the human health impacts of anthropogenic environmental change and communicating them to stakeholders at a wide range of scales, we can work collaboratively across sectors to identify policies and practices, from local to global, that protect and improve the health of populations. A familiarity with the evidence gaps and policy applications of planetary health research, and an appreciation for individual and community-level agencies are critical for a meaningful and context-specific translation of research into policy and action.
(4) Organizing and Movement Building: Students must develop an understanding of the role that community organizing and movement building plays in the political process at various scales, from local to global. An appreciation for the influence of a ‘bottom up’ approach on policy change, and the capacity to leverage time and people-power is critical when considering solutions to planetary health challenges
(5) Communication: Planetary health challenges are complex, spanning different disciplines, sectors, geographies, cultures and scales, and so there is a need for effective and meaningful communication across these arenas, with a focus on translating planetary health science. Students must develop an understanding of the variety of communication tools available and how to select the best suite of tools as they work to convey planetary health challenges and solutions to diverse audiences. Appreciation for the role of ‘listening’ in effective communication is vital.
(6) Systems Thinking and Transdisciplinarity: An understanding of planetary health necessitates engaging with a multitude of disciplines and actors to understand and propose solutions to complex challenges. Thus, it is critical that an emphasis on systems-thinking and knowledge integration is incorporated into curricula to better equip students to collaborate across disciplines and develop sustainable solutions for planetary health challenges that overcome existing gaps in research design and associated policy development.
(7) Inequality and Inequity: Understanding the differences between equality and equity in theory and practice, as well as concepts of marginalization, vulnerability, resilience, and who benefits and who is harmed in a given scenario is a core objective of planetary health teaching. As the impacts of environmental change on health are heterogeneous and mediated by factors such as geographical scale, temporal scale, socioeconomic factors, and political and cultural context, students must think critically about whose health is at stake and how it is measured.
(8) Bias: It is important to think critically about whether political, social or economic dynamics may be driving the presentation and perceptions of environmental change and resultant health impacts. Students must learn to identify potential biases in planetary health research and be aware of the vested interests working both in support of and against the factors that affect the connection between environmental change and human health.
(9) Governance: Governance refers to the high-level strategy employed by a leader or leadership team in their decision making and decision implementation processes. It is the art and skill of turning capacity into action and, when the capacity is not there, generating it. It requires dealing with institutional issues, managing political interests, and making leadership more effective. Students should understand and be able to provide some examples of how planetary health challenges can be created or aggravated by failures of governing bodies to cooperate across populations, regions and boundaries, especially where effective cooperative mechanisms are not yet established.
(10) Unintended Consequences: It is important to recognize that surprising and unexpected consequences of environmental change, both positive and negative, are inevitable. Students should understand the role and predictive limitations of impact assessments and recognize that we will continue to be surprised by how Earth’s changing biophysical conditions will affect human health. This systemic uncertainty requires a shift in government, corporate and community mindsets to allow for greater adaptive capacity, and an emphasis on programs that increase socio-ecological competence, community resilience and sustainability.
(11) Global Citizenship and Cultural Identity: A global citizen is someone who sees themselves as being part of the international community and whose actions help define the community’s values and practices. As students realize their own cultural identities and recognize their inherent membership in both their local and global communities, they have the opportunity to help define the values and practices of the next generation to positively impact those communities.
(12) Historical and Current Global Values: An understanding of the past is necessary for solving problems of the present. To grasp the necessity and urgency of planetary health, students must be aware of the historical perspectives and milestones that have laid the foundation for the field, including those perspectives that have been historically marginalized or ignored. To identify avenues for positive intervention, students must recognize trends over time and appreciate current global context.