How Many Dots to Connect? Defining Sustainability in the Curriculum Pt. 2
By Julian Dautremont-Smith
Chief Sustainability Officer
Alfred State College
In part 1 of this post, I examined current practices for identifying sustainability courses and found that definitions of sustainability-focused and -related courses tend to leave too much room for interpretation. As a result, institutions are taking widely varying approaches to course classification and there is a huge range in scores earned on the two credits in STARS that focus on courses (ER Credits 6 and 7). Based on these findings, I argued that more guidance in STARS was necessary. In this post, I’ll make some suggestions for what this guidance should look like.
Given the wide spread of scores earned on ER 6 and 7, the first issue such guidance must address is how wide we should cast our net when classifying sustainability courses. At first blush, a more inclusive approach seems to make sense. Virtually all disciplines have an important role to play in sustainability and it seems appropriate to recognize the contributions that courses are making. Indeed, using a broad definition may enable better engagement with faculty who may not have realized that they were teaching a “sustainability” course.
The problem is that it is too easy to stretch the broader definitions to include virtually all courses. For example, some institutions classified many of their medical and nursing courses as sustainability-related, perhaps on the not-unreasonable basis that human health is an element of sustainability. However, similar logic could be used to count all economics and perhaps even most business courses as sustainability-related on the basis that they address the economic dimension of sustainability. Likewise, the logic would seem to support counting any course that addresses social well-being in one way or another, including sociology, gender studies, cultural studies, psychology, etc. To the extent that the arts contribute to human well-being, theater, music, fine arts, and even art history courses could conceivably be counted. Language courses could count because they facilitate communication across cultures, which is a prerequisite for effective global resource management. Even physical education courses could count since they contribute to human health.
Unfortunately, classifying every course as a sustainability course isn’t useful. It doesn’t provide an incentive for additional integration of sustainability concepts into the curriculum and it doesn't enable meaningful benchmarking over time or in comparison to peers. So how do we create definitions that recognize the potential contribution of all disciplines but still result in useful and comparable data?
Defining “sustainability-focused” in a way that generates more comparable data seems fairly straightforward. The key in my opinion is to make more clear that the course must explicitly focus on sustainability as an integrated concept. That means courses which emphasize just a part of sustainability do not count and neither do traditional courses that include some sustainability content. Providing some examples of courses that likely would and would not count will also help to make this clear. Here’s what I recommend:
A sustainability focused course is one in which the primary focus is sustainability as an integrated concept, including its social, economic, and environmental dimensions. This focus must be explicit. Typically, this will be achieved by including “sustainability” or “sustainable” in the course title. At a minimum, sustainability must appear prominently in the course description. As sustainability is an interdisciplinary topic, such courses generally incorporate insights from multiple disciplines. These courses are also likely to have been created recently since sustainability is a relatively new field of study.
Courses that would likely count:
- Introduction to Sustainability
- Sustainable Agriculture
- Architecture for Sustainability
- Sustainable Business
- Sustainability Science
Courses that could count if their primary focus is explicitly sustainability:
- Introduction to Environmental Studies
- Literature and Nature
- Ecological Economics
- Systems Thinking and Analysis
- International Development
- Environmental Ethics
- Global Environmental Health
- Society and the Environment
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Urban Planning
- Environmental Technology
- Environmental Law and Policy
- Life Cycle Assessment
- Environmental History
- Resilient Societies
Courses that would likely not count:
- Cultural Anthropology
- Organic Chemistry
- Transportation Planning
- Geographic Information Systems
- Civil Engineering
- Marine Biology
- Introduction to Gender Studies
- Transcendentalist Literature
- Nursing 1
Redefining “sustainability-related” more precisely seems much more challenging. The nomenclature itself seems problematic. Virtually all courses are related to sustainability in some way. Even courses that likely undermine sustainability (e.g. courses on marketing luxury goods or coal mining) are related to sustainability and yet I don’t think we ought to be awarding points for such courses through STARS.
Given this, I think it might be best to retire the “sustainability-related” label and develop new labels that better reflect the different ways courses can advance sustainability. In addition to courses that are focused on sustainability, I can think of two other major categories of courses that we should seek to recognize and encourage through STARS: courses that are inclusive of sustainability and courses that are supportive of sustainability. I define these terms as follows:
A course that is inclusive of sustainability is one that is primarily focused on a topic other than sustainability but includes at least one unit or module on sustainability as an integrated concept, including its social, economic, and environmental dimensions. The word “sustainability” is likely to appear somewhere in the syllabus of such courses.
Courses that would likely count:
- an Introduction to Chemistry course that includes a module on green chemistry and chemistry’s contribution to sustainability
- an Art and Social Change course that examines art’s contribution to sustainability
- a Math in Society course in which practice problems are oriented around sustainability
- a Business in the European Union course with a unit on sustainability
- an Ethics courses that discusses inter-generational equity and the sustainability ethic
A course that is supportive of sustainability includes at least one unit or module that provides skills or knowledge directly connected to solving one or more major sustainability challenges, including: climate change and ocean acidification; poverty and global inequalities; depletion of nonrenewable resources; barriers to cooperation posed by prejudice and intolerance; over-harvesting of renewable resources (e.g. fisheries, soils, and forests); habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity; undemocratic institutions and violations of human rights, over fertilization of water bodies; desertification and water scarcity; violence and war; and toxics in the environment. Such courses do not necessarily cover “sustainability” as a concept but should address more than one of the three dimensions of sustainability (i.e. social well being, economic prosperity, and environmental health).
Courses that would likely count:
- Photovoltaic and Wind Turbine Installation
- a Construction Management course in which students help construct a green building
- Conservation Biology
- Environmental Journalism
- Peace Studies
- Development Studies
- Natural Resource Management
- Organic Agriculture
- Neglected Diseases
- an Urban Planning course in which students develop plans for sustainable redevelopment of a city park
- Climate Adaptation
- Integrated Pest Management
- National Environmental Policy Act
- an HVAC course that includes a unit on high-efficiency and geothermal systems
- Life Cycle Assessment
- Cause Marketing
- Green Chemistry
- Environmental Design
Admittedly, these definitions (especially the one for courses that are supportive of sustainability) still leave more room for interpretation than might seem ideal for comparability purposes, but I’m not sure how much additional specificity is possible. I couldn’t figure out how to be more specific without excluding courses that I think we really do want to be able to recognize and encourage through STARS. Given the diversity of courses offered by STARS participants, allowing some room for interpretation seems inevitable and probably desirable. My hope is that these proposed definitions would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, variability in how institutions are classifying and reporting on sustainability courses.
If AASHE were to incorporate these new definitions into STARS, I’d recommend counting all three types of sustainability courses equally. It's not obvious that one type of course inherently contributes more to sustainability than another. Valuing the courses equally also reflects the reality that the differences in content between a course that is focused on sustainability and a course that is supportive of sustainability may be quite small in some cases. This approach is likely to lead to more accurate categorization since participants would not be tempted to classify each course in the most lucrative category possible.
I'm keenly aware that diagnosing the problem is much easier than proposing a workable solution so I’d love comments on these proposed definitions. Constructive suggestions are especially welcome! Are they clear? Too open-ended or too narrow? What would make them better?
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