Volume 7, No. 1: Summer 2004
CURRICULUM: Preaching NOT to the Converted: Why Sustainability
Courses should be Required for All Students at All Colleges and
By Mick Womersley
Unity College bills itself as "America's Environmental College,"
which is the kind of bragging that only the little guy on the
playground can get away with. We are about thirty faculty and
five hundred students tucked into a converted farm in rural Maine.
We are easily ignored.
Our students come predominantly from modest backgrounds; most
from rural New England. They take conservation degree majors like
"Conservation Law Enforcement," "Wildlife Biology,"
"Forestry," and "Parks, Recreation, and Ecotourism."
A slightly more liberal minority takes "Environmental Policy"
or "Environmental Writing." Most aspire to jobs in conservation
fields, in law enforcement, in wildlife management. They know
they need to work after college, and most try to work through
college. They try not to take loans. (Our fee structure is appropriately
modest.) They want to work in government agencies, often in uniform.
They are stolidly conservative, after a rural New England fashion.
They are not stereotypical American environmental liberals. Most
do not even like to be called environmentalists. They are nice
kids. Some are in the services, the guard or reserve. They go
to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan. They rarely protest. Sustainability
has nothing to do with them.
So they think.
But about six years ago the faculty looked at the correct writing
on the wall, and put together a required core curriculum in "environmental
stewardship." In addition to math, English, and speech, students
would take sequential interdisciplinary courses exposing them
to the environmental movement, to conservation history, to the
social science of environmental problems. Writing would be integrated
across this core curriculum. Math would be included. And so would
sustainability, under the rubric of "human ecology."
The faculty passed the curriculum and began implementing it over
a number of academic years. Soon it was time to teach the primary
sustainability course, the third in the sequence, for the first
time. I was almost done with my PhD in Environmental Policy for
the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. Sustainability
was my thing, and I applied. A year later, we found another sustainability
specialist in the shape of Dr. Nancy Ross, expert in food policy
and agricultural sustainability, and a new college president,
Dr. David Glenn-Lewin, an ecologist. The new president made sustainability
one of five top priorities for the college. David appointed Nancy
and I to the Campus Sustainability Committee. The rest, as they
say, is history.
It's a very interesting history, we think, for people who worry
about sustainability in higher education; a comprehensive program
for sustainability almost identical to that called for by the
Talloires Declaration and in other materials disseminated by ULSF.
We believe our programs are unique for their focus on undergraduates
and on sustainability training for all, regardless of major. We
like to think we're training leaders for the whole of society,
not just academia. Wind turbine towers yes; ivory towers no.
This is a contribution to national priorities. There's a concerted
effort on the part of leaders of the National Academy of Sciences,
National Science Foundation, and various professional societies
to set up interdisciplinary graduate programs in these areas to
meet needs brought about by climate change and sustainability
issues in general.1 Very few programs, however, are concerning
themselves with undergraduate education; those that do are primarily
interested in training specialists, and most of these folks will
presumably also go on to graduate work.
But, and here's the rub, polls show that only about thirty percent
of Americans believe climate change will affect them.2 Climate
change is just one of several important sustainability issues
that will affect all Americans. Oil depletion is probably the
next most important.
Here at Unity College, we're trying to provide a solid education
in sustainability to all our undergraduates, regardless of major.
We believe strongly that this is appropriate both for the benefit
of our students and for society as a whole. This means we have
to worry about what to teach, and how best to teach it. The field
is rapidly changing, highly politicized (to the detriment of common
sense), and complex. A lot of universities and colleges are involved
in sustainability issues, whether from the point of view of improving
the campus physical plant, or education, or both. Few have a good
idea of the priorities or how best to think about them. We think
we do, and are being quite successful.
First, a note about pedagogy. We couldn't do this work as well
as we do if we just approached it in the same soft, new agey manner
that bedevils environmental studies around the nation. Our conservative
students would rebel, and rightly so. The commitment to rigor
and quantification turns out to be key to overcoming students'
latent conservatism. We stick to the facts, which are scary enough
by themselves. So does our policy of hands-on learning. It isn't
just the maintenance department and the school's architect that
are at work. When we say we're going to put up a wind turbine,
we mean that students are going to put up a wind turbine, not
some contractor. That way, they really learn.
Here are the bones of what we're currently doing and wish to
1) All students take a two-course, sophomore/junior sequence
in sustainability/human ecology as part of their mandatory general
education. No one graduates unless they pass both courses. They
are systematic and rigorous (thanks here to Herman Daly, Robert
Sprinkle, Steve Fetter, Peter Brown and the other teachers at
the UMD environmental policy program for making it clear that
one could be rigorous about environmental policy and not lose
the desire to do good in the world). The courses together cover
many topics, but include at least human economic history, ecological
theory, climate change, natural resource depletion, basic quantitative
modeling, climate emissions accounting, a little sustainability
engineering (solar panels, wind turbines, composting, landfill
technology, and so on), and a considerable amount of critical
thinking about how human societies work with regard to sustainability.
2) The campus is becoming physically more sustainable in regard
to all inputs and waste outputs. The basis for knowing whether
or not this is achieved is rigorous and quantitative. (In the
last two years we reduced our climate emissions by 27% overall.)
Through lab days and course projects, students are involved in
designing buildings, composting, building wind turbines and solar
3) A minority of interested students are prepared for graduate
school and successfully placed in the leading sustainability policy
and sustainability science graduate programs using advanced classes
and a minor in human ecology and sustainable development. Of this
group, some are encouraged to join Peace Corps or other service
agencies. (Our students are also leaders in the Northeast Climate
Campaign, and regularly put in more national level appearances
talking about sustainability than we do.)
4) We are making solid connections with our local community,
including business leaders in sustainability, to get the leadership
we need to make sure all the above works and works well. We're
reaching out to people who run wind farms, who make fuel cells,
who organize farmer's markets. We invite them to campus. We have
them speak. We ask them what they think should be taught. We try
to place students in internships with their organizations.
As a result of successfully doing all of the above, within a
very few years we intend to be the recognized national experts
in training undergraduates in sustainability.
We recognize several weaknesses in our program. First, even with
the business connections described above, our program is directed
primarily towards government and NGO work, not private business.
We now offer a five-year combined BS/MBA in cooperation with Husson
College, but have not forged good connections between this new
program and sustainability, or with business leaders in sustainability.
We know there are growing opportunities out there in business
for good sustainability thinkers, but we haven't completely made
the connections. Second, we're small and remote. Getting regional
and national attention is extremely difficult for us. Third, we're
congenitally under-funded, primarily because for nearly forty
years we've trained conservation workers who get relatively low-paid
jobs and who can't afford big donations. We boast alumni high
in the EPA, the State DEP, and the Colonel of the Maine Warden's
Service, an alumnus himself, is coming back here soon to teach
conservation law, but we're 98% percent tuition driven. It's time
to get over this, but doing so will take some help.
In short, because we're small and flexible, and because of our
existing environmental expertise, Unity College is able to do
what other larger institutions currently find terribly difficult,
but will shortly find essential: teach meaningful courses in sustainability
to all undergraduates regardless of major. And it works. Alumni
surveys at Unity College show that after five years, 61% of respondents
are in employment related to the conservation field they studied,
while 80% give up to 40 hours per month of paid or unpaid labor
to an environmental cause. These core courses are taught to all
students, not just the converted, the current denizens of the
environmental programs. This job has to be done, and it has to
be done well. It's their future, not ours. We have the responsibility
to teach them how to deal with it as best we know how.
1 Good examples of this momentum include recent publications by
the National Research Council such as Our Common Journey: A
Transition Towards Sustainability, or similar texts in the
area of global change. In graduate programs, the one that is making
probably the greatest theoretical contribution is the Gund Institute
for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, but many
other significant programs have begun in the last decade.
2 From a 2002 poll by the Gallup organization, published on the
Internet under "Poll Topics and Trends: Environment,"
Mick Womersley earned a PhD in Environmental Policy from the
University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and an MS in Resource
Conservation from the University of Montana Forestry School; both
degrees were awarded for research involving problems in sustainability.
He was a NOAA Sea Grant fellow in Environmental Policy from 1997-2000,
working as research assistant to David Wasserman and Mark Sagoff
of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy studying the
sustainability of Maryland fishing villages. He has also taught
as visiting professor at both Bard College and at the Institute
of Ecology, University of Georgia. His primary interest is human
ecological sustainability, but he also writes and publishes articles
on urban planning and on public policy ethics.
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