How Many Dots to Connect? Defining Sustainability in the Curriculum Pt. 1
By Julian Dautremont-Smith
Chief Sustainability Officer
Alfred State College
In an effort to track progress in sustainability education and promote sustainability courses, many colleges and universities have attempted to identify which courses they offer integrate sustainability concepts. As Alfred State is starting to move in this direction, I recently analyzed almost 160 definitions of “sustainability in the curriculum” submitted by participants in the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). To enhance the comparability over time and with other institutions, I was hoping to find examples of definitions that are clear, specific, and require little subjective interpretation. At a minimum, I was looking for definitions that were explicit in how to deal with potential grey areas.
Unfortunately, I found many of the definitions to be fairly ambiguous. Perhaps as a result, even institutions that used similar definitions often seemed to interpret them differently when it came time to classify courses. The experience confirmed what a number of STARS users and reviewers have argued - the curriculum data available through STARS do not allow for meaningful comparisons between institutions. This post, the first of a two-part article, summarizes my findings. In Part 2, I’ll actually propose some new definitions for sustainability courses that I believe will generate better and more comparable data.
Overall, I found that the definitions of sustainability in the curriculum that institutions provided could be organized into 4 main groups:
- Roughly a quarter repeat the definitions of “sustainability-focused” and “sustainability-related” courses from the STARS Technical Manual almost verbatim.
- About 17 percent provide only a general definition of sustainability (often the standard Brundtland definition) and don’t say anything directly about what it means in the curriculum.
- Another 30 percent define sustainability education, but do not distinguish between sustainability-focused and sustainability-related courses.
- The remaining 28 percent provide an institution-specific definition of sustainability-focused and sustainability-related courses that went beyond upon the generic definition provided in the Technical Manual.
Disconcertingly, this means that although classifying courses as sustainability-focused or -related is necessary to earn many of the curriculum points in STARS, almost half (47%) of STARS participants submitted definitions that are clearly inadequate for this task. And, almost half of those who did distinguish between sustainability-focused and -related courses just used the definition supplied by STARS, which was intended as a starting point rather than a complete definition. Even many of those institutions that took the time to develop their own definitions ended up with definitions that contained substantial wiggle room and left a lot to individual judgment.
Given the room for interpretation in many definitions of sustainability in the curriculum, it’s no surprise that STARS participants ended up with quite different approaches when applying the definitions to their course lists. For example, some institutions seemed to take a very inclusive approach to classifying “sustainability-focused” courses - including courses that seemed to be about a more traditional topic e.g. Meteorology, Swine Production, Principles of Accounting, American Economic History, Petroleum Geology, Family Resource Management, Fundamentals of Marketing, Contemporary China, Beginning Tai Chi Chi Kung - while others took a more conservative approach, basically only including only courses with “sustainability” in the title. As a result, the scores on ER Credit 6 “Sustainability-Focused Courses” range from 0.03 to 10. The situation is similar for ER Credit 7 “Sustainability-Related Courses,” where scores range from 0.05 to 10.
This is a serious problem for STARS.˚ ER credits 6 and 7 are worth 20 points collectively. Choices about which courses to classify as sustainability-focused or related could easily bump an institution up a whole rating. The large number of points involved, subjective nature of the definitions, and difficulty of determining if a course has been correctly categorized without reviewing a syllabus or talking to the professor, may tempt institutions to over-report their numbers of sustainability-focused and -related courses. Over time, it’s easy imagine that this dynamic could result in the course count figures becoming more and more inflated and less reflective of the real trends in sustainability education. At a minimum, wide differences in approaches to course class classification make meaningful benchmarking on this issue almost impossible.
This analysis suggests that the campus sustainability community would be better served if AASHE were to offer greater guidance on this matter rather than asking campuses to define terms themselves. Less than a third are really taking advantage of the flexibility for participants to develop their own definitions offered under the current version of STARS anyway. A key question then is how broad such a definition should be or, put another way, how many dots should we connect in our course classifications. I’ll provide my answer to this question in Part 2.
˚Admittedly, as one of the original creators of STARS and current chair of the STARS Steering Committee, I deserve a sizable share of the blame for this problem. I hope this post is a step towards remedying it.
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