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Crossing Disciplinary Borders for Sustainability Education

Ellen Metzger, Geology and Science Education, San Jose State University

My relatively recent interest in teaching about sustainability was catalyzed by an unexpected opportunity to reconnect with an old friend when he came to deliver a lecture at San José State University. Randy Curren is a University of Rochester philosophy professor who, like me, grew up in New Orleans. His engagement in education for sustainability was inspired in part by Hurricane Katrina's devastating social, economic, and environmental impacts on our home town. Our conversations led to collaboration on a book about sustainability and education (in progress) which will draw on our combined expertise. This cross-disciplinary writing has prompted me to explore, for first time in my long career, the literature and methods of fields other than my own and sparked an active search for cross-department collaborations to develop sustainability-themed instruction. For example, a team of faculty from SJSU's colleges of Science, Education, and Humanities and the Arts is working on a climate change education project featuring the Green Ninja, a climate-action superhero who fights global warming by inspiring informed personal action [www.greenninja.org].

My efforts to bring sustainability concepts to the classroom have taken two forms

  1. development of an elective "Science, Society, and Sustainability" course for upper division undergraduate and graduate students in education and geology and
  2. professional development workshops for Earth science teachers.


In both cases, Earth system science supplies a foundation for understanding how economic and social systems are constrained by Earth's biophysical limits.

These initiatives share similar content and teaching approaches including:

- A thematic framework for relating sustainability to students' lives through connections to everyone's daily needs for food, water, energy, and materials.

- Use of multiple teaching strategies including lecture/discussion, small group activities, and reading and writing assignments to engage learners in critical analysis of the social, economic, environmental and ethical challenges arising from the collision of human and natural systems.

- Investigation of biogeochemical cycles, energy and water resources, ecological footprints, food systems, climate change, life cycle analysis, and the true environmental and social costs of energy, food, and consumer goods.

Lessons learned from these initiatives will serve as the basis for design of an introductory sustainability-themed science capstone course for future elementary and middle school educators.


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