Integrating Sustainability into Curricular and Co-curricular Programs

Once your sustainability committee has inventoried all sustainability-related educational programming that already exists on campus, you can look for opportunities to connect interested faculty with each other and to build organically on efforts already in place. The keys are to align curricular and co-curricular programming, offer structured opportunities for faculty to share resources and ideas across disciplines, and find ways to scale up efforts that see early success.

Involving Students in and out of the Classroom

Jack Byrne, director of the Sustainability Integration Office at Middlebury College; Angela Halfacre, director of the Shi Center for Sustainability at Furman University; and Blase Scarnati, director of the University First Year Seminar Program at Northern Arizona University, suggest the following ways of integrating sustainability efforts with student learning in ways that aren't restricted to a classroom setting:

  • Identify real-world issues related to sustainability in the local community, and invite a class to conduct research and make recommendations
  • Identify opportunities on your campus, and pose questions in the classroom on how to move forward

In short, set up situations in which both campus and community stakeholders act as "clients" for groups of student researchers and student consultants. This empowers your institution to both provide real-world learning and civic engagement opportunities for students and harness its own resources to solve on-campus and local problems.

For example:

  • Design a capstone course for seniors in engineering or environmental studies, in which the students undertake research projects that culminate in recommendations to the institution's board or to city representatives  (for example, a class could make recommendations on how to make an upcoming campus landscaping activity more sustainable, or could research the viability of the city adopting electric vehicles)
  • Harness your first-year student experience program or seminar to create freshman research terms -- start with one section and then scale up

Scarnati offers two examples of projects that freshman-year "action research teams" at Northern Arizona University engaged in:

  • One team connected with a local nonprofit organization and signed 100 households up for energy retrofits
  • Several teams partnered with local elementary schools, providing fourth-graders with disposable cameras and with college-aged mentors; the fourth-graders then photographed evidence of an issue on their elementary school campus or the surrounding community, interviewed school officials, and made presentations to their school board. Scarnati recalls that one team successfully lobbied their school board to upgrade bathroom facilities, another to bring in upgraded, safer playground equipment, and still others are currently researching issues around sustainable foods and local homelessness

"Pilot the effort, then track the impact on students' academic performance and persistence. These students engage in building both a social network and a learning network in their first year, and they see the real-world impact of their studies. They can also become mentors for the next year of students."
Blase Scarnati, Northern Arizona University

Deepening Integration into the Curriculum

Furman University mapped out different gradations of curricular integration (see Figure 2):


Curriculum Integration

Figure 2: Levels of curriculum integration

If your institution is on the left end of that spectrum, Blase Scarnati recommends starting by encouraging faculty champions to serve as "lead discussants" with the rest of their department, starting if needed with one-on-one meetings. These champions within their various departments can inventory how that department's majors are currently engaged in sustainability both in and out of the classroom, and then engage their colleagues in discussions of where to do more. "You need early discussions of how sustainability matters to that major," Scarnati suggests. "How do historians look at sustainability? How does sustainability matter to you as engineers, as biologists?"

As you scale up, the next step is to identify learning outcomes around sustainability, then move toward developing a "curricular map" for how work toward these outcomes can be achieved across the sophomore through senior years. You want to ensure that the opportunities available in each year build upon the last year's opportunities, and that there aren't gaps (for example, a sophomore year infused with many curricular and co-curricular opportunities to study sustainability, followed by a junior year in which few or no opportunities are offered).

As you look to ramp up integration into the curriculum, Halfacre and Scarnati suggest considering:

  • Will you require freshmen to take one sustainability-related course in their first year?
  • Can you set up a series of "faculty infusion workshops" in which faculty can work together to identify ways to infuse sustainability into existing courses across disciplines, rather than creating new courses?
  • Do you want to create a sustainability-related concentration within a particular major (and then track both the level of student interest in the concentration and how students make use of that concentration after graduating)?

Halfacre suggests supporting the growth of this effort by:

  • Establishing an affiliate faculty support program, whereby faculty with interdisciplinary interests can connect and share resources, coordinating on grants and teaching opportunities. Furman University has taken this approach a step further by partnering with faculty at several other institutions.
  • Establishing student fellowships to support undergraduate and graduate students in researching sustainability issues.