Sustainable Curriculums

Faculty members describe different approaches to incorporating sustainability into their classes, in some very different disciplines.
November 12, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- For all the talk of all things green, fewer colleges are incorporating sustainability and the environment in the curriculum now than in 2001, and academics “lag behind” the operations side of campus, sustainably speaking, according to the National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Environment 2008 Report Card, released in August.

Here at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference, which concluded Tuesday, plenty of sessions focused on the operations side of things -- energy savings, transportation demand management, and commercial composting. But also in town to give talks were a significant number of faculty members, from a wide range of disciplines, interested in leading from the classroom lectern.

“When you go back to your colleges and the math faculty say ‘I can’t do sustainability in the classroom,’ you can say, 'No, no, I know someone who does it,' ” said Thomas Pfaff, of Ithaca College.

Pfaff does it. As outlined on his Web site, his classes use real-world data, such as data on world grain production or atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, as a starting point for standard calculus problems. “None of this in my mind requires changing the calculus content,” said Pfaff, who said that in solving the problems students find opportunities for reflection.

“They’re not simply being told there is a problem, and I’m not telling them there is a problem…. I just give them the data and you tell me what’s going on,” said Pfaff.

Speaking more broadly of incorporating sustainability in the curriculum, “It’s not just engaging the top ten percent of students who are activists but having a general knowledge in the population so it’s easier to make changes," he said.

At the same time, what do you need to teach both the activists and their (historical, at least) adversaries?

"The environmental scientist and the business person tend to speak a different language and think about things in a different way,” said the University of Idaho’s John Lawrence, who taught a class last spring on business principles for environmental scientists (business students, in turn, were required to take an environmental science class).

The environmental science students covered basic business topics, and also considered case studies. For instance, for "Sean," a small-time rental property owner thinking about building a green duplex near campus, "How do we know that this thing is green, what are the green elements, what does that cost us.... How does Sean set the rent.... What will the market bear and what are the extra costs of building green?" Lawrence said. “It really got them to think about, how do I understand the cash flows and how do I understand the business situation, and how do I relate to Sean who’s a small business person?"

Lawrence's class relied on a custom-designed text. At the young School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, a graduate workshop offered last spring focused on the process of developing sustainability-related course materials and curriculum. Students in the course had the unique opportunity to brainstorm about learning outcomes for a brand-new undergraduate program, and also create outcomes, lessons, activities and rubrics for a new freshman course, Sustainable World, according to Susan Ledlow, a curriculum specialist at the school. New faculty hired to teach the freshman course this fall have relied in part on the students’ materials, she said. “They’re not starting from scratch.”

Students in the Arizona State course also developed a workshop for high school teachers, which has since also been used for middle school teachers, Ledlow said. Among the learning outcomes for the graduate workshop, “We wanted them to adapt learning materials to different settings, K-12, university, community and professional settings,” she said.

On a different note, Deborah Adelman, an English faculty member at the College of DuPage, a community college in Illinois, described when students broke ground for a college garden on a chilly April day five years ago; since then, the garden has yielded produce for a local food pantry. “We did give them shovels. I read Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Earth’s Fertility,” a wonderful poem, kind of shockingly sensual but I just read it and they went, ‘Whoa, what are we going to do there?' ” said Adelman.

“There’s a lot of good literature out there about food and how to grow food.”

Several presenters at AASHE shared stories of their sustainability-focused courses becoming catalysts for action on campus and in the community. Heidi Ballard, a sociologist at Otterbein College, in Ohio, described how an environmental sociology class of hers conducted a preliminary sustainability audit of the campus, put together a PowerPoint, “and we decided at the last minute we’d just call all the media in the area. Let me tell you, that’s a great idea. We had an overwhelming turnout at our first presentation of people in the community,” Ballard said.

Ballard said the audit, and the attention it garnered, influenced policy at Otterbein, which for instance has hired a recycling coordinator ("We kind of outed the unfortunate situation with recycling") and incorporated sustainability into its strategic plan.

“We were lucky that we happened to do the audit right at the time the college was writing its strategic plan and they could not ignore the work we were doing,” said Ballard, whose research areas include environmental sociology and social change. A subsequent class she taught focused on urban sustainability issues, and helped generate movement on sustainability in multiple communities in the Columbus metro area, she said.

Ballard encouraged social scientists to "become part of the sustainability movement on campus and help that spill out into the communities.”

The theme for the 2008 AASHE Conference, which attracted more than 1,700 people to Raleigh, was “Working Together for Sustainability: On Campus and Beyond.” In a closing panel on government and higher education, Debra Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, offered a broad recommendation for fostering ties between colleges and communities on sustainability matters.

“I would suggest that you work with faculty and student activities and student groups, send the students out into the real world to find out what the problems are.… It’s a simple question: ‘If you had more staff so you could do your sustainability projects, what would you do?’ You might have to explain what sustainability is, but your students can do that.”


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