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Environmental and sustainability issues have permeated every level of academia, from art instruction to business courses.

When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, millions of Americans — many of whom were college and university students — participated in an effort that sought to improve the quality of the environment and conserve natural resources. Since then, environmental studies programs have popped up throughout the nation, creating jobs for ecologists, politicians and other professionals whose career paths have them working directly on improving the environment. But today, there is a demand to “go green” and weave everything “sustainable” into our everyday lives. This message is filtering down to other disciplines in higher education, not just environmental studies.

“We have standard disciplines in academia, and they don’t always include environmental or social dimensions,” says Dr. Laura Strohm, executive director of The Sustainability Academy, an organization that provides sustainability curriculum for community colleges and universities in the Central Coast of California. “So, I think community colleges and higher education everywhere are scrambling to upgrade their curriculum to meet this new green demand. It is coming from students and it is coming from industry.”

According to a recent report released from the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment titled “Education for Climate Neutrality and Sustainability: Guidance for ACUPCC Institutions,” higher education is facing “its greatest challenge ever in meeting its responsibility to provide the knowledge and educated citizenry that will lead to a thriving civil society.” Those challenges, according to the report, are due in large part to the world’s fast-growing population and the activities resulting from the Industrial Revolution, including pollution and rapid consumption of natural resources.

Academia is responding. While community colleges are boosting training to meet the demand for skilled workers for “green” trade jobs, four-year institutions are promoting convergence of sustainable themes among departments, as well as integrating principles of sustainability into business courses.

Weaving It In

Four-year institutions around the country are taking a strategic approach to weave environmental issues into a variety of disciplines. The Institute for Sustainable Development at California State University, Chico is working with its faculty, who are sharing their course syllabi to link generaleducation courses together by next fall. The courses will share a common thread on sustainability.

For instance, a history professor will teach how the use of natural land shaped the country’s history; a literature teacher will emphasize nature writing while lecturing on transcendentalism; and an anthropology professor will focus on how the United States’ oil consumption affects governments and the people in African countries.

CSU Chico hopes its academic programs will serve as a reflection of how it’s a sustainable campus, says Scott McNall, executive director of the institute.

“Instead of having something added to our program, we are trying to find a way to integrate into existing courses, so by taking general education courses, students can, in a way, get a deeper understanding of the issues they are going to have to confront as future citizens,” McNall says. “They are the last generation of students who are going to live with a stable climate, so in a way they have to figure what our future is going to look like.”

For nine years, Sustainability Initiatives at Emory University has made integrating environmental sustainability into the curriculum a top priority. More than 130 faculty from every school and division have participated in its Piedmont Project, a faculty development program that promotes sustainability courses on campus.

As faculty unite and brainstorm to better meet the need for sustainable thought in their courses, they have solved some challenges in a creative manner, says Ciannat M. Howett, director of Sustainability Initiatives. For instance, a professor of Chinese worked with other faculty from the Piedmont Project and translated the Sustainability Initiatives vision statement into Chinese and Mandarin.

“So we now have our sustainability vision translated into any language you can think of,” says Howett, adding that other courses like two in the art department titled “Ecologically Made Sculpture” and “Contemporary Environmental Art” exhibit themes of sustainability, creating a widespread appeal for students and faculty to think about the future of the environment.

“The important thing here is that yes, universities play a very critical role in terms of the technologies of the future and the research, and they play a critical role in educating our future technology leaders in the math and sciences,” Howett says. “But we won’t be able to tackle issues like global climate change unless we are touching each student regardless of discipline.”

A Multidisciplinary Approach

At four-year institutions, business programs are flourishing with sustainability courses. Aquinas College, a private university in Michigan with an enrollment of 2,100, was the first college in the country to establish an undergraduate degree program in sustainable business in 2003. The program offers the traditional business courses, but students are also required to take natural sciences courses.

“We believe that in order to pursue sustainability, we really need a foundational understanding of our ecosystems and how they function,” says Dr. Deborah Meadows Steketee, executive director for sustainability at Aquinas. Armed with the knowledge of how ecosystems work, students can extend healthier sustainable business practices even before they graduate when they participate in the Sustainable Business Innovations Lab.

This hands-on course allows students to work with local businesses and develop sustainable solutions to challenges they are facing. For example, the students went on a site visit to a trucking company and developed a carbon calculator to help determine the carbon footprint for various loads and routes. One of those loads was to carry wind turbine components, for wind power systems. It was an eye-opening discovery for everyone involved to see how the demand of sustainable energy — wind power — is still in need of logistical transportation that emits carbon into the atmosphere. “We are all learning about sustainability together, we are all learning what is possible,” Steketee says.

Learning what is possible also means taking a multidisciplinary approach to develop concrete degree programs, not only for the students’ benefit but for the environment, too. On the graduate level, the City College of New York will offer a master’s degree in sustainability in the urban environment starting in spring 2010, with an expected enrollment of 20, many of whom are expected to be students of color.

Dr. Latif Jiji, an engineering professor and chairman of the program, has been developing this program for three years. As he researched similar programs, he found that not all programs combined the three disciplines that inform sustainability: engineering, architecture and science.

“Most programs focus on one thing or another — either on architecture or engineering or environmental science — but none of them integrate all of these three disciplines,” Jiji says. “And that is really the foundation of sustainability.” A foundation so strong that, when Jiji and fellow faculty were in the process of getting the program approved, he was surprised that all of his colleagues were in favor of establishing this master’s degree program.

“It is unheard of in academia that professors agree on something. And beyond that, it went to the college faculty senate and the board of trustees and the state of New York (for approval),” he says. “Clearly they were informed.”

Being informed and inspired to create curriculum with sustainability in mind is key to improving the future of the environment, people’s health and the world’s economy.

“Most campuses are involved in sustainability issues,” Jiji says. “So it is a kind of a revolution that young people are very motivated and that is great for us.”

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