Curriculum and Research
Introduction to Academics (Curriculum and Research)
“Sustainability implies that the critical activities of a higher education institution are (at a minimum) ecologically sound, socially just, and economically viable, and that they will continue to be so for future generations. A truly sustainable college or university would emphasize these concepts in its curriculum and research, preparing students to contribute as working citizens to an environmentally sound and socially just society. The institution would function as a sustainable community, embodying responsible consumption of food and energy, treating its diverse members with respect, and supporting these values in the surrounding community.”
– Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (www.ulsf.org)
The teaching and learning of students (curriculum) and the investigation and generation of new knowledge by faculty (research) are the heart of higher education, and it is in this academic arena that universities can potentially have the greatest impact on sustainability.
One of our primary responsibilities as an institution of higher education is to educate our students, the next generation of leaders and citizens, on the meaning and potential applications of sustainability. We can and should give them the perspectives and skills they need to engage responsibly with the urgent sustainabilitychallenges facing human societies in the 21st century. Furthermore, the breadth and complexity of sustainability issues makes this concept highly relevant to a liberal arts education (e.g., Rhodes 2006, Sherman 2008, Wiessman 2012). Sustainability requires and enhances the skills, knowledge, and abilities essential to a liberal arts education, including critical thinking, deep knowledge and broad perspective, interdisciplinarity and the ability to synthesize information, and a sense of responsibility and citizenship. In this way sustainability has the potential to “powerfully validate the liberal arts” as it makes liberal arts skills a requirement for success in the modern workplace and highlights their values to employers (Weissman 2012). Along these same lines, sustainability brings a distinct immediacy and relevance to students’ educations by situating their learning in real and vital 21st century challenges.
Finally, sustainability has the potential to transform not only what we teach, but how we teach (Sherman 2008). According to Weissmann (2012), “Virtually every [education for sustainability] agenda stresses the need to connect the classroom with local, regional, and global communities with an emphasis on place-based experiential learning.” The clear links between sustainability and real-world problems encourages high-impact pedagogical practices such as problem-based learning, community and service learning, applied projects, and research. This in turn encourages us to transform our thinking about learning at our institutions.
If sustainability requires experiential learning, what better place for students to practice than their university? Cortese (2001, 2003) promotes a model of the sustainable university in which teaching, research, community outreach, and operations are understood as deeply intertwined, forming “a linked and interdependent web of the students' learning experience.” This view of the university in which all aspects of the institution are seen as relevant to student learning, combined with a focus on experiential learning, leads us to the goal of the university as a living lab: “a given place where problem-based teaching, research, and applied work combine to develop actionable solutions that make that place more sustainable.” (Portland State University)
Progress since last Campus Sustainability Plan (2006)
The overall goal of the last Campus Sustainability Plan was to link the university’s formal teaching and learning goals to sustainability, in order to ensure that students have diverse and extensive opportunities to engage with sustainability, and, ideally, to ensure that every student encounters sustainability while at UW Oshkosh. UW Oshkosh has made great strides in this area. In 2008, sustainability was made one of the Essential Learning Outcomes for students, clearly making sustainability a core priority for student learning at UW Oshkosh.
(CC Image by KTucker (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Through extensive pedagogical support, professional development, and community building (notably the Winnebago Project Faculty College, run from 2008-2011), we coached over 30 faculty on how to bring sustainability into their teaching, resulting in a number of disciplinary courses on sustainability and broad support for the general idea of bringing sustainability into the curriculum.
Pedagogical tools were also developed to support this (for example, a sustainability rubric and an online repository of teaching information). Perhaps most importantly, sustainability was incorporated as one of the core concepts on which our new general education program, the University Studies Program (USP), is built. As of Fall 2013 all students must take at least one course that explores the Sustainability Signature Question (“How do people understand and create a more sustainable world?”), ensuring that all students engage with sustainability while at UW Oshkosh. This also required extensive professional development and training of faculty and instructional staff on how to bring sustainability into the classroom. UW Oshkosh is among only a handful of universities in the country that have made this kind of curricular commitment to sustainability.
Academic programs focused on sustainability have also been developed, including the College of Business Minor in Sustainable Management and an online Masters in Sustainable Management that is run collaboratively by several UW System institutions. Finally, a University Leadership Fellow for Sustainability was appointed in late 2010. This half-time administrative position is filled by a faculty member and is focused on advancing the academic component of sustainability at UW Oshkosh. The efforts and actions facilitated by having a faculty member devoting half their time to this work was crucial to advancing sustainability in the curriculum at UW Oshkosh in the past several years, in particular sustainability in the USP.
Faculty research has the potential to produce innovative solutions that can help address the many sustainability challenges we face. In addition, if collaborative methods are prioritized such research can also build strong connections between disciplines and between campus and community. Sustainability has become a legitimate academic field unique in its ability to generate transformative results that can have a real impact on human societies, but it remains elusive to researchers due in part to the complexity of the issues it addresses, its trans-disciplinary nature, and youthfulness as a scholarly field. William Clark, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, described sustainability science as an applied trans-disciplinary field of investigation. He stated: ‘‘Like ‘agricultural science’ and ‘health science,’ sustainability science is a field defined by the problems it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs” (Clark 2007, p. 1737).
Many faculty engage in research that has strong links to sustainability, but are only trained to pursue research opportunities in their primary discipline. Although they may be interested in transdisciplinary approaches in general and sustainability in particular, they lack the training and support to begin such projects. Much need exists to build the research capacity of faculty at UW Oshkosh to engage with sustainability.
(Student research being conducted at UW-Oshkosh's Environmental Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) lab)