Teaching intelligence: infusing sustainability into a curriculum

How can universities ensure that students learn vital lessons in sustainability in all their courses? Anna McKie talks to three leaders who have already done so

November 12, 2020
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As more wildfires raged across California in October – the end of a year that began with fires devastating large parts of Australia – and Nasa warned that 2020 is set to be the warmest year on record, scientists and activists are clear that every person and every organisation needs to play their part in advancing sustainability.

Universities – housing, as they do, a large proportion of scientists – are keen to get on board. Many already have sustainability written into their strategies and have started to divest from fossil fuels, and some are even taking beef off their menus. But how to embed it into universities’ strongest tool – the curriculum? And how best to inform students about sustainability even if their subject is not directly relevant?

Keele University in the UK is one institution leading the way. “We’ve got to the stage where every single one of our undergraduate programmes has sustainability embedded into it. It’s taken a few years to get there,” said Mark Ormerod, deputy vice-chancellor and the university’s strategic lead for environment and sustainability.

Professor Ormerod explained that part of Keele’s success comes from “a real institutional commitment to embed this in all we do. I am the person in the senior leadership team with responsibility for leading [on sustainability], and we created the role of director of education for sustainability.

“We are committed to sustainability in our research, knowledge, external engagement, campus and community, too. It’s very much a whole-institution approach that then works alongside the academic curriculum…it’s important that students learn about sustainability and then see it enacted on campus,” he explained.

The university’s director of education for sustainability helps programme directors and conveners find ways to build it into their curriculum, even if it is not a central, fundamental component of their discipline. In nursing, for example, it could be through teaching about sustainable packaging, Professor Ormerod said, or in history, learning the story of environmental conservation movements.

It is harder in some subjects than in others, he admitted. So the university hosts workshops in which programme teams discuss what they have done and learn from each other; one outcome of this was a booklet highlighting the best examples. There can be resistance among staff teaching subjects where sustainability is more tangential, Professor Ormerod said, but helping them to see that it is an institutional priority and, most importantly, giving them time to make adjustments, “has really worked”.

For Professor Ormerod, it is vital that every course has sustainability infused into it rather than requiring students to take an elective on the topic each term − his team has found that if sustainability does not seem relevant to the course in question, engagement can be much lower, he explained.

Jessica Ostrow Michel, postdoctoral research fellow in environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan, agreed. Research she conducted at Michigan State University, another institution leading in this field, found that two-thirds of students had come across sustainability in their learning, no matter their course. However, the study found, those encounters came only in one of their classes and only one or two times − and that has little lasting impact, she said.

“We know from the cognitive and educational sciences that repetition is important, and it needs to be done with depth,” she advised.

Dr Ostrow Michel said academic staff needed organisational or structural changes to support this work. Her university has provided her team with a grant to support faculty in teaching sustainability. This signals that it is important to the institution and gives staff a formal mechanism to collaborate, she explained.

Another method is to reward faculty for infusing sustainability in their curriculum. Such work takes time away from research, and as it is research that gets you tenure, changing the reward structures is crucial, Dr Ostrow Michel said.

“It’s really important that this happens in less obvious courses,” she added. “[Because] sustainability science is not diverse, but we know that minority communities are particularly affected by climate change. So in terms of equity we need to make sure that all students have access to this subject matter regardless of their major.”

To achieve this, impetus and direction must come from the centre, as too often an institution’s sustainability office is disconnected from those making changes, she said.

Ka Ho Mok, vice-president and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, agreed. “The most important aspect is to create a total learning environment in promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals through formal and informal curricula,” he said.

The university promotes “whole-person development”, with sustainability a key part of that, he said. Thus, sustainability is built into its service learning courses − which connect academic knowledge to community projects – and science and environmental education are part of the university’s general education requirements. This provides “a holistic education for students to care about sustainability-related issues”, Professor Mok said.

Dr Ostrow Michel cautioned that these efforts must continue despite the pandemic and the switch to online learning.

“It’s easy to forget anything extra; we’re just teaching what we need to get by,” she said. “However, given the urgency of sustainability challenges – this is the hottest decade ever measured – we can’t afford to put this to one side.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Plant green lessons in all corners of the curriculum

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