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Creating a Sustainability Curriculum


What if you could get a certificate in sustainability, or even make sustainability your major?  In the next few years the University of Utah plans to offer these programs and more, for undergraduates and graduate students.

For creating a sustainability-focused curriculum the University has appointed two professors to lead the task: Dan McCool, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Environmental Studies Program, and Steve Burian, Associate Professor and Researcher in Civil and Environmental Engineering.  For the next three years they will be working with faculty, staff, and students from across campus to develop a set of programs for the University of Utah.

“It’s going to require a lot of creativity,” says McCool.  “I don’t know what we’re going to come up with yet.  We just started.  But the sky’s the limit at this point.”

The concept of forging a sustainability curriculum has been in the pipeline for some time now.  McCool says the University administration including President Michael Young have been tremendously supportive of the idea.  Moreover, the University’s 2010 Energy Efficiency and Stewardship Initiative outlines the need for new interdisciplinary coursework – something that the late Craig Forster, who helped found the campus Office of Sustainability – enthusiastically promoted.

Now also moving forward is the U’s new Sustainability Research Center, geared towards facilitating research collaboration around sustainability issues.  But Steve Burian says a needed third link is an emphasis on creating sustainability programs, degrees and courses for students with varying backgrounds and interests.

“We’ve noticed a lot of individuals on campus doing good things in regard to sustainability in their own silos, and their own fields, and a small number of collaborations of programs going on, but not much,” says Burian.  “So we’re looking to figure out what there is, who is doing what, and how different University programs can meld with each other. We want to make it more of a concentration for students, not just a group of classes that aren’t well coordinated.”

For example, Burian says, students in communication might take multidisciplinary courses where they interact with students in policy, or students in the sciences, engineering, or planning – everyone working together to solve problems, but each student using his or her own skill sets.  The end goal being that students are more aware of the other disciplines and what they do.

Another possibility, Burian says, could be some project-based courses that require many different skill-sets, and where students have to collaborate together.  These could be “real-life” projects on campus or in the surrounding community.  Burian says this could mean greater collaboration with existing partners like the Lowell Bennion Center, and other regional entities for helping them with projects they need to get done.

“We can’t provide community volunteer work and projects as a curriculum, but we can tap into it,” Burian says. “We could provide opportunities for service hours or projects that would count towards a certificate.”

With the launching of the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) program last year, innovative student projects are blooming across campus.  Some SCIF Projects like the Campus Gardens, the Bio-Retention Rain Garden, the Solar Parking Pass Study, and Greening the Organic Chemistry Labs are just a few examples of where further interdisciplinary research and even coursework could ideally occur.

McCool and Burian say they also hope to study what other universities are doing in regards to sustainability coursework and programming.

“Some of these schools have about a decade’s worth of experience with planning and implementation,” says McCool.  “We want to see what works and what doesn’t, and not reinvent the wheel.  And as we gather some good ideas we could reemploy those ideas [at the University] as we begin.”

Burian says studying abroad and international experiences will also remain important in a sustainability-focused curriculum.

“Because sustainability is a global issue there are things we can learn elsewhere,” Burian says.  “In other countries there are examples of things not being done properly, but also things being done better, or differently because the society or culture can use different resources or policies, or can function with different social behaviors than in the United States.”

Creating a sustainability curriculum will also help the University of Utah attract students.   McCool points to studies from other universities indicating a significant percentage of students select a university because of its environmental and sustainability programs.

“It actually draws students,” he says. “So we know we’ll have warm bodies in those classes if we offer them.  So that’s good for the University and it’s good for students.  They’ll have more choices.  They’ll have a broader expanse of educational opportunities.”

Right now Burian and McCool say they will be continually gathering input and encouraging participation from all levels of the University for visioning how the curriculum will come together.  Although they anticipate it being a phased project, possibly a year from now, they say, the University could offer a sustainability certificate program, followed by a minor, and then a major program in the next few years.

  • Rob Wakefield

    Interesting post. Regardless of what people’s opinions of “sustainability” are, there’s a future in this industry. Like Burian said, it’s a global issue.

  • Rob Wakefield

    By the way, I look forward to seeing this sustainability program evolve!