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New School Sustainability: Majors Making a Difference
Sarah Kuck, 20 Oct 08

Brilliant solutions are more than just answers to problems. They are catalysts of hope, beacons for those who believe in a better world. Shining brightly, the best solutions beckon thousands to take notice, to recognize the call to action and to make a difference.

But once we are inspired to change things for the better, where do we go from there? How do we learn to make a difference in the world? From Amsterdam to Ontario, Vancouver to Southern California, universities and colleges around the world are reshaping their education models to integrate theories of sustainability into every school of thought. They are building new majors and adjusting traditional ones to prepare their students to be the smart thinkers, brilliant builders and cunning innovators that we’ll need to transition into a more prosperous world.

My own desire to make a difference was sparked just a few months into my first year of college, when I quickly learned that the world was much bigger, and in much more trouble than I realized. I teetered on the edge of my desk chair, scrawling down details as my professors taught me about how realities like overpopulation, the sixth extinction, climate change and resource depletion have been changing the world. I pored over classics from Leopold to Abbey, Carson to Thoreau, and attended lectures, meetings and rallies. I started to see more clearly how our society’s actions were affecting the air, land, water and other creatures. For the first time, I began to question my role as a person on this planet. Even from my desk, I could see that the planet needed help, we needed help – and I wanted to be a part of whatever movement was going to create change.

The university I was attending didn’t offer many options in environmentally focused majors outside of wildlife biology. So, I transferred schools and changed my major to get the skills and knowledge I needed to prepare me for a job where I could help, where I could feel like I was making a difference.

And as I’ve found out, more and more students are doing the same. For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching how students are demanding that their universities provide them with the skills they will need to help build a better world. They are realizing that in order to have the knowledge and tools for the jobs they want in the 21st century, they’re going to have to integrate ideas of sustainability, ecology and social justice into whatever field they pursue.

From business to biology, traditional fields of study are transforming to give students who want to make a difference the knowledge they’ll need to become part of the sustainability revolution. But this revolution is not like the ones that came before. It will not be characterized by weapons or singular voices, but with knowledge and cohesiveness; with educated change makers, ready to fill the niches of the bright green revolution.

This is the first piece in a series dedicated to helping people who want to make a difference find their niche. During the course of the week we’ll delve into different areas of study, from global health to sustainable technology, to show how anyone can make any major make a difference.

So you want to make a difference?

To make the transition to a sustainable world, we’ll need an army of sustainability-minded revolutionaries. We’ll need scientists to record what’s happening in the forests and oceans, prairies and deserts, to plan for the future and to work on restoring and conserving what’s left. We’ll need builders and designers to help reconstruct our cities and their systems. We’ll need mechanics and engineers to construct new technological and energy systems. More than ever before we’ll need a team of people working on social justice, humanitarian rights and fairness issues, holding the world to a higher level of accountability. And last but not least, we’ll need hordes of artists, musicians and creative types to paint life with that delectably unique human essence.

From architecture to engineering, fields of study are incorporating sustainability theories in order to give students the knowledge they’ll need to become part of this revolution.

What follows are some examples of universities around the globe where students can earn a solid sustainability-related degree. I searched to find institutions with leading programs in game-changing fields like Sustainable Design, Holistic Wellness, Environmental Education and Conservation Biology.

Click below to check out the articles we have published so far:

Building Better Energy Systems: Sustainable Engineering

Nourishing a Healthy Society: Public Health and Wellness

Protecting the future: Environmental Law

Redefining Progress: Sustainable Development

Monitoring and Maintaining the Earth: Conservation Biology

Inspired to Teach: Environmental Education

Bringing Sustainability to Business

We’ll add to that list each day this week, each article identifying a specific school's degree program along with other universities offering similar majors, and reviews of resources for learning more about each field.

We know there are many schools out there working to expand their programs, and we’d love to hear about any you are attending or have attended. And even more so, please let us know about the yet-undeveloped fields of study you imagine shaping the minds of the new, bright green frontier.

Images by Morgan Greenseth

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I am thrilled to see this thread. At Middlebury, where I teach, I have developed a concept called opens-source learning. It's elements include:

Non-hierarchical learning
Learning in groups
Learning via networks
Knowledge creation in real time
Knowledge creation for the common good

I have put this model to work in many of my classes: for example, my current seminar, "21st century Global Challenges," documented here.

I look forward to learning more from this thread.


Posted by: Jon Isham on 20 Oct 08

I have been trying to find this kind of resource for months now. I earned a B.A. in political science a few years ago and I want very badly to pursue a graduate degree that will allow me to help drive and shape the inevitable adoption of "green" technologies, economies and philosophies. Using William McDonough as an inspiration, I see "sustainability" not so much as the sustaining of our present environment but rather continuing to grow economically by working with nature rather than exploiting it. The idea of technical metabolism is profound.

Unfortunately I have all this enthusiasm, but no money, little skill and utter confusion as to what fields to look into. I look forward to these articles helping me out.

Posted by: PH on 20 Oct 08

Great post!
Just be careful when wielding the words 'social justice'.

Posted by: james willer on 20 Oct 08

PH - I have a BA in Political Science, also.

I'm currently at the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning getting an MA in Planning. UBC's planning program is unique in that it integrates planning into the program. To illustrate, the school's vision is to achieve sustainability through the democratization of planning. Bill Rees - the inventor of the ecological footprint - is a professor here.

Vancouver is a great place to be studying as it's the most livable place in the world and is world-renowned for great and progressive planning.

Planning is definitely an important sustainability degree to mention, because how we renew old areas, build new cities, and shape the growth of current cities directly impacts our consumption, construction, transportation, and demographic patterns, which are primary causes of resource use!

Posted by: daniella fergusson on 20 Oct 08

In Belgium, I'm a guest professor at Group T Engineering College, and I teach a course called "Holistic approach to engineering" to first year students. This course is also given at 2nd and 3rd year students.

The books I use to guide this course are Natural Capitalism, Seven habits of highly effective people and the TNEP course on Whole System Design.

At Group T we believe Engineers have a major role to play in reinventing our business model and shaping our future. Engineers/change agents — with insight into the major challenges the world is facing, and the skills to help transform these challenges into the foundations of a more sustainable, profitable, and desirable societal model.

We think that in order to be able to implement this new business model, engineers will also need to be equipped to overcome the personal and interpersonal obstacles associated with change. We describe one approach to deal with these, describing several characteristics such as self-awareness or self-knowledge; imagination and conscience; will power; abundance mentality; courage and consideration and creativity.

It's a difficult audience to reach, but we follow up with second semester projects in which teams of 2 to 4 students investigate whole system design solutions to presssing problems, and present it to the class in a short, vulgarizing paper and a 1 minute 'elevator pitch'.



Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 21 Oct 08

Where you really need these kinds of resources are in the middle schools and lower. None of the teachers at this level KNOW HOW TO TEACH THIS, but this is where all the habits of later life — and the habits which are a source of adult happiness — get set.

Bring these people who know how to do this to us! Please.

Posted by: Andrew Watt on 21 Oct 08

what about economics?

Posted by: matt on 22 Oct 08

You should take a look at thew University of St Andrews, in Scotland. I'm currently getting a degree there in Sustainable Development, and the program has won awards for its excellence, as well as perhaps being the only degree of its kind in Europe.

Posted by: Sam on 22 Oct 08

Sorry about the poor spelling above, I should have re-read it before posting!

Posted by: Sam on 22 Oct 08

I agree with Matt, what about economics? I am having trouble finding many educational resources in that subject, but I am sure there are some and it interests me.

Posted by: PH on 22 Oct 08


Very interesting series. Thanks for doing this, it reminds me of the great exchange about MBA programs on this site last year.

You might be interested in the recent report by the Aspen Institute on academic sustainability centers. I just read about it in the current issue of Environmental Finance. Students who are thinking of choosing among them may wish to consider the same kind of things the authors determined to govern the success (and shortcomings) of these centers.

Have a look at the report at:

Posted by: j david on 23 Oct 08

Thanks for the shout-out to the artists. I'm a solo performer currently touring a comedy about the First Lady of the US launching a nationwide sex strike to combat global warming.

I've been to over 20 cities in the US and UK, and it's abundantly clear to me that people need an opportunity to laugh in the face of the abyss, as well as hear their fears and hopes spoken out loud.

Keep the faith, everyone! So much is possible!

Posted by: Kathryn Blume on 23 Oct 08

We are delighted to report that Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea Ohio has just introduced a new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in sustainability. It draws upon courses from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and business, and includes a sustainability internship, an interdisciplinary, project-based capstone course and assignment of a professional mentor in the field. The major is gaining great traction at our college

Posted by: David Krueger on 24 Oct 08

Have a look at the programs offered by the University of Waterloo Faculty of Environment in Ontario Canada. They have seen an 80% jump in the enrollment for their Environment and Business diploma program. That is the kind of action that will lead to change from within the system.

Posted by: Paul Hackl on 25 Oct 08

Sustainability concepts are spreading through curricula most deeply than merely degree programs focused on sustainability. Ultimately, sustainability principles need to permeate every program, every degree, and every class. For example, at CCA, sustainability has been a valuable part of the curriculum for over 15 years, with specific courses focused on it as well as its principles being integrated into all kinds of courses.

CCA has explored the possibility of creating a Sustainable Design degree but we've realized that this is, at best, a transitional strategy and that sustainability needs to be in every degree. For example, our new MBA in Design Strategy builds sustainability (as well as innovation and meaning) into every course since we wouldn't be preparing our students for the future if we didn't.

There are many other program exploring the integration of sustainability with their core focii. We've compiled a Resource Center with these (and other) programs for those interested.

Posted by: Nathan shedroff on 26 Oct 08



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