Q&A with Rachel Headley, Sustainable Management Instructor and Geologist

Tiffany Stronghart January 22, 2024
A shot of an Alaskan glacier against a dark background

Rachel Headley, an instructor in the Master of Science in Sustainable Management, also works as a geology professor in environmental studies at the College of Idaho, a small liberal arts school outside of Boise, Idaho. Previously, she lived in Wisconsin and was the director of the Center for Environmental Studies and the chair of Geosciences at UW-Parkside, where she taught climate courses. Her research is in geomorphology, the study of landforms and surface features of the geological world. 

Rachel, who teaches the elective SMGT 786: Climate Change, recently shared a bit about her background and what prospective students in her courses can expect. This course is new as of spring 2021.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I’m originally from West Virginia. I got my undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Maryland. I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I wasn’t quite sure what kind. I ended up discovering geology my junior year of college. And at that time, it was a little too late to change majors. And I was like, a physics degree will never hurt you.

Then I went to grad school at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I studied geology. I specifically did work on glaciers and how glaciers carve into mountains to form glacial valleys and did work up in Alaska for that. It was interesting. When I was in grad school, I for some reason didn’t want to do kind of the climate part of glaciers because I think it felt a little too depressing. I wanted to focus on just the dynamics of glaciers and how they’re moving. 

And then I did a couple years studying glaciers in Germany as a postdoc. Then I went to Wisconsin. I started doing more on-the-ground rivers and studying the glacial sediment left behind from 20,000 years ago. I had another project going in Alaska too, and I’ve done some other work in the Upper Peninsula.

Can you tell me more about SMGT 786: Climate Change; specifically, what students study?

We spend a fair amount of time just looking at the science behind climate change and why this is changing. Also, we measure how it’s been changing and how it’s going to change by looking at models, looking at ice cores, looking at all the streams of evidence and putting all of those together into the framework of how everything interacts. Basically, a system science approach: looking at how that is really what’s behind climate change. And then we expand to the political, economic, humanity-based components of that.

How do students interact in your course?

I do a fair amount of discussion boards that are generally based around pieces of the big final paper that they produce. So they’ll produce statement papers on climate along with a guide of different climate interventions or things that can be taken.

I have a lot of nested discussion boards where they’re working together to talk through different pieces. So talking about climate impacts in one location and comparing and contrasting that to another location. We get a lot of feedback from students realizing something that applies in this area might not be best applied over here, or that impacts happening in this area are the same as this area.


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Can you tell me how students in your courses have been able to apply what they learn on the job?

[For projects], they choose the business sector that they might be either interested in or involved in. I know a lot of the students, particularly in the master’s program, have been working for a while and have traction in an industry that they maybe want to stay in, just move toward more of a sustainability side in it. So they focus around the specific elements that might apply most to that industry.

I had someone in class who was working at the natural history museum in Chicago. The things that they would try to apply to their work in the museum would be different than someone who works for a chemical company. I think that that’s really one of the strengths of this program: the students and the support there; they are all trying to learn a wide breadth of things and getting the depth in the areas that they need it or want it in.

Not all Sustainable Management students have hard science backgrounds. What advice do you have for someone without a science background?

It’s not built to be intimidating. It’s built to build upon the experience of everyone in it. Some of the students have brought some really interesting backgrounds to the classes, which have been really cool to try and tie into what we’re going through, through the semester.

What do you like about your courses?

The climate classes are probably some of the most important classes that I’ve taught because they’re really touching on one of the most pressing issues to humanity of the modern day. And I think that being able to build up cohorts of students, particularly students who want to move into these areas where they can effect change, is just a really great thing to be able to do. 

What advice do you have for students who take your course in terms of managing workload?

Start as early as you can. If there’s a reading, do the reading and then think about it before getting to everything else. I know that’s not always possible with life happening. But I think that a lot of the courses are built so you are kind of building off of things that you’ve done before. So you should feel free to kind of rely on what you’ve done in another course. 

Rely on the background that you’ve gained from other things that you’ve seen in the course and feel free to bring those into the other courses. I always love it when students are like, oh, we talked about this in this course, and we did this. And then a couple other ones have taken the same thing and can talk about it more.

Don’t doubt your own lived experience, both for approaching the assignments and the program overall. That’s been one of the coolest things I’ve encountered: working with the different students going through the program.

How is your coursework organized? How much time should students expect to study?

For my classes, there’s generally kind of a smaller weekly assignment, maybe some readings that might take an hour or two. But then there’ll be some bigger papers that they have to do that will probably be more kind of a condensed chunk of time.

I would say six hours a week, maybe. But it’s going to go up and down. It’s going to fluctuate depending upon what you have to do.

How can students stay up to date on climate issues? What resources does the course offer?

I try to use big, international publications and databases, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC regularly puts out something, and I try to at least have that hopefully at the most updated version that they have out in the class. 

And then for some of the other stuff, I’ve tried to update some of the science backgrounds. Like, how CO2 is changing every year. There’s luckily good databases that stay pretty updated.

In terms of news, there’s a lot of newspapers and podcasts with a big environmental focus. I just opened my email and I see The Washington Post environmental alert that they send out every day.

How can your course help students change the world?

There’s definitely been a lot of discussion lately about climate anxiety. That’s a very real thing that we talk about when we talk about the human elements of it. When everything kind of looks doom and gloom, which it does quite often, unfortunately, I know that the students themselves are in a position where they will be able to hopefully change things for the better. You kind of have to push through some of the heavy to get to where you have enough information to be able to make a change.

Note: The UW Sustainable Management program regularly revises and updates its curriculum to provide the most up-to-date information, knowledge sets, skills, and tools for our students to succeed as sustainability professionals. As such, this Climate Change course was added in Spring 2021 and allows students to explore topics of interest in greater depth.

Interested in learning more about the 100 percent online UW Sustainable Management master’s program? Take a look at the curriculum page or reach out to an enrollment adviser with any questions about the program. For more information, call 608-800-6762 or email

Programs: Sustainable Management