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GESA Sessions

Using a transdisciplinary approach, we combine a variety of learning modes at our Global Environments Summer Academy to provide a unique and dynamic learning experience. The following provides a sense of the general curriculum, which includes creative preludes, research cafés, roundtable discussions, methods and skills practicals, ethnobotany breaks, small group interactions, collaborative initiative sessions, field trips and evaluations. These are described below, as well as a selection of retreats and workshops that have been carried out over the years.

For more details, visit our GESA 2018 event page.


Creative preludes

All GESA days start with a galvanising Creative Prelude, during which we explore the aesthetic, creative or spiritual aspects of our engagements with pressing global issues. Drawing on the extraordinary backgrounds and experiences of GESA participants, everyone is invited to share what inspires them in their work, whether it is art, music, poetry, environmental games, yoga sessions, or reflections.

Research cafés

Research cafés provide a dedicated space for participants to learn about each other’s research, applied projects and aspirations, and to tell their story. The name points to the common practice–in university towns across Europe–of meeting in a café and discussing life and work over coffee or a glass of wine. In respect of this tradition, participants are encouraged to explore non-conventional modes of presentation: while welcome to use presentation software, they are also invited to use alternative formats such as showing a short video, telling a story, or organising an active dialogue session.

Roundtable discussions

In the spirit of interactive learning, we have replaced conventional lectures with roundtable discussions. Short presentations from resource persons stimulate debate about a contemporary issue in environment and society. Each three-hour session features two resource people and is facilitated by a moderator who introduces the speakers, monitors the dynamics of the debate and intervenes as needed to keep the discussion flowing.

Methods and skills practicals

Interactive sessions, facilitated by highly skilled resource persons, provide theory and hands-on practice with methods such as video, participatory mapping, cultural domain analysis, working with botanical collections, and ethnographic approaches.

Ethnobotany breaks

Every day, during morning and afternoon recess, we organise ethnobotany breaks, a highly popular alternative to the traditional coffee break. Participants contribute to this celebration of food sovereignty and dietary diversity by bringing something to share from their own food traditions and giving a short explanation of its cultural context and significance.

Small group interactions

Participants are encouraged to use free periods to organise informal sessions on topics of interest or to continue an interesting debate started during the day’s roundtable. They often invite resource persons to join them for these discussions, which usually take place in the evenings, either at the student housing or in one of Bern’s beautiful parks or beer gardens.  The focus of these sessions – theoretical frameworks, advocacy, research design, ethical issues or advice on finishing dissertations and sustaining careers – is agreed upon directly between the participants and resource persons, ensuring that everyone gets what they expect from GESA.

Collaborative Initiative sessions

Part of our commitment is ensuring the continued engagement of participants post-Academy. Groups of participants are invited to join forces–among themselves and/or with resource persons–to present a collaborative project proposal. These proposals are elaborated by groups who share research interests, geographical focus, advocacy concerns, etc. and are presented for feedback and comments at dedicated sessions. A draft proposal, to be submitted before the end of GESA, will be the only coursework expected from participants; formal feedback can be expected within the subsequent few months.

Field trips

GESA eagerly leaves the conventional classroom behind. Organized field trips have included remote retreats, museum visits, and excursions to nearby farms. In addition, participants are free to organise activities on their days off. Many take every opportunity for a swim in the Aare River or to take the train out to the numerous Alpine hiking trails and historical sites accessible from Bern.


Feedback from participants is an essential component of GESA’s continued success and improvement.  We welcome perspectives on Academy activities and structure at any time during the three weeks, holding more structured midterm and final evaluations to ensure participants share impressions and suggest improvements for the remaining weeks and subsequent Academies.


Goethe Dynamic Engagement Retreat

GESA 2014 opened with the 4-day Salvia Goethe Retreat, Dynamic Engagement, a Goethean Approach to Connection, led by transformative educator and facilitator Emily Ryan. Held at Gemmi Lodge in the mountain town of Kandersteg, the retreat’s deep and connecting approach transformed the diverse group of arriving participants into a cohesive learning community by prompting participants to weave Goethe’s presence into the rest of the course, both in everyday interactions and reflections, and through specific workshops and discussions.

When Voice Becomes Form and Puppet Becomes Satire: A three-part course in political puppet making

The workshop started at the Paul Klee museum, where an expert curator walked the group through the Satire-Irony-Grotesque exhibition of works by the prodigious Bernese artist and his contemporaries. It continued a few days later at the ROHLING atelier, during which local artists guided participants and resource persons through a puppet-making process. The final session utilised the newly created puppets to generate innovative dialogue in which participants playfully articulated their caricatures’ perspectives. Drawing on video and interview skills in subsequent filming sessions, this workshop expanded on GESA’s environmental and communications themes.

Policy panel roundtable discussion

This session brought together voices from academia, civil society, the corporate world and government to debate the theme of “Energy, Ethics and the Environment: are biofuels a solution to energy self-sufficiency, equitable use of biodiversity and environmental sustainability?” The session was broken up by a food sovereignty ethnobotany break and followed by an informal In Vino Veritas cheese and wine reception. We expect the theme of the policy panel debate to cover a different contemporary and challenging topic every year.

Communications: Science and comics – a workshop on knowledge transfer for complex topics

The Science and comics – a workshop on knowledge transfer for complex topics, delivered by Reinhold Leinfelder and Alexandra Hamann, kept with the theme of enhancing participants’ communications skills through this workshop on making comics for communicating complex scientific ideas and innovations.

Nurturing Innovation

GESA 2013 began with the Nurturing Innovation workshop in at Kandersteg, a scenic village nestled in the heart of the Swiss Alps. The three-day retreat facilitated by Eitan Buchalter of the Global Governance Institute (GGI) focused on cultivating participant’s inner strengths, creativity and resilience in the process of developing a personal method for bringing innovation in their work and lives.

Welcome Reception

Hosted at the University of Bern’s Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), the opening reception featured a short introduction and welcome by Gary Martin of the Global Diversity Foundation and Thomas Breu of the CDE, followed by presentations from CDE staff on their varied research projects. The subsequent drinks reception provided the opportunity for discussion and free interaction between GESA participants and CDE staff, some of whom returned for further Academy sessions.

Communications: video theory and practical workshop

Professional videographer Inanc Tekguc and award-winning video-journalist Ruth Krause introduced participants to different styles of video and their uses. The group then broadly dissected the stages of video-making before launching into hands-on practice. In small groups, participants designed, planned, and shot a short film at a scenic organic farm in the outskirts of Bern. This workshop introduced participants to the major components of video making and encouraged further exploration according to their particular interests and needs, and to utilise video as a communications strategy.

Advocacy, Law and Policy

This workshop aimed to raise participants’ awareness of law- and policy-making processes and to equip them with the tools needed to proactively engage with these at international, regional and domestic levels. Facilitated by international legal expert Marie Wilke, the session aimed to demystify law, making it available and enjoyable to non-lawyers; to encourage participants to use law and policy to enhance their work; and to introduce useful approaches for engaging in legislative and adjudicative processes. The workshop culminated with a dynamic and fun ‘moot court’ simulating a legal case.

Self Knowledge and Global Responsibility

Through meditation, listening exercises, and discussion, this session explored the intimate relationship between being, intention and action and how we can experience and practice this relationship in ourselves, with others, and in our everyday work and actions. Inspired by great activists, such as Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Ghandi, the workshop explored how mindfulness and clarity of intention are key to effective, sustainable and transformative action in the world.

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