Sierra Club ranks environmental class top in the nation

A photo of Jim Sheppard's dad, George, sits on Jim's bookshelf. Revered as a groundbreaking sustainable forestry practitioner, he is an inspiration to Jim.
A photo of Jim Sheppard's dad, George, sits on Jim's bookshelf. Revered as a groundbreaking sustainable forestry practitioner, he is an inspiration to Jim.

Jim Sheppard helps students address 21st-century questions

In the September/October 2010 issue of Sierra Magazine – near environmental luminaries, such as Michael Pollan, Jared Diamond, Elinor Ostrom, Al Gore and James Hansen – UMKC’s Environmental Ethics and Policy course, taught by Professor Jim Sheppard, ranks among the nation’s top five environmental courses.

“I can’t think of a more prestigious honor for Jim as a teacher, frankly,” said Clancy Martin, chair of the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Philosophy. “Sheppard is the finest teacher I’ve ever worked with, and if we support him and his ideas properly, he could create a UMKC Environmental Ethics and Policy program that would be the envy of the best schools in the country.”

A class everyone should take

Offered by the Department of Philosophy, the three-credit undergraduate course is open to all majors and academic levels. Professor Sheppard said that all students can benefit from the course.

“I think of it as a class that every student should take,” Sheppard said. “The questions of the 21st century are environmental questions. Social, political and economic issues all relate to the environment, and this class helps students understand all the interconnections that exist in the world.”

Sheppard’s teaching focuses on two subjects: the relationship between philosophy and public policy and the nature of personal responsibility. Whether addressing institutional design or individual sustainability, students learn to think about subjects in systemic terms.

Students then go into the community to apply what they have learned. In the past, they have addressed pollution in Brush Creek, thought about the role environmental concerns might play in relation to the corrections system, pulled weeds at community gardens, cleaned neighborhoods and interned at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Because the state of the environment is continually changing, the course changes from semester to semester. From the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to how the K-12 educational system incorporates environmental issues into curriculums, students partly determine the semester’s choice of topics.

A career and community encouragement

Students and community members echo the Sierra Club’s recommendation. The Student Government Association named Sheppard 2010 Professor of the Year, and students have credited Sheppard’s class with providing career guidance.

When she enrolled, Amy Bhesania recycled and worked to conserve energy. However, she was not familiar with the philosophy and ethics of sustainability.

“The class helped me question why I did what I did,” Bhesania said. “It also helped me to think about behavior change and why changing someone’s behavior can be so difficult even when the ‘right’ answer might be right in front of them for everything from food choices, lifestyle choices and beyond.”

The course also helped her obtain a job overseeing community partnership programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7.

Jacob Westen, a 2008 UMKC alumnus and second-year law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, credits the course with convincing him to earn a Philosophy degree and work in the environmental sector.

After completing his law degree, Westen hopes to work for environmental justice, applying the values and policies he developed and honed in Sheppard’s class.

“I am thrilled, but not surprised that Professor Sheppard’s course has earned this notoriety,” Westen said. “It is more than just a college philosophy course. Sheppard’s course showed me how to think systemically and how to start applying what I learned.”

In the Kansas City community, people know Sheppard as a strong leader and team player. He has served as a city commissioner and on several boards and think-tanks for organizations, such as the Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City Police Department and Bridging the Gap.

“Jim’s thoughtful leadership and vision are helpful to all of us in the community,” said Tom Jacobs, environmental program director for the Mid-America Regional Council. “I’ve also interacted with students who have taken his class. In each instance, folks are highly motivated and will invariably reference a conversation or topic in class that has motivated them and helped them find direction and clarity about how to help in the community.”

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