The Case for Including Sustainability

What do we mean by "Sustainability"? »

Geoscientists are increasingly engaged with pressing environmental questions related to the interaction between humans and Earth's systems. Issues such as balancing energy alternatives with environmental toxification, climate change, and provisioning a growing human population while maintaining natural resources have fundamental geoscience components. Addressing the pressing issues facing humanity is also attractive to a diverse range of students, including many who are not interested in traditional science degrees. Many students are already well attuned to the difficulty of the large, interdisciplinary challenges we face, as a society, and are looking for opportunities to take them on. This is a major growth opportunity for STEM programs. Students who historically would not have considered a natural science field, now enter environmental science programs where there is more flexibility in student progression and they are engaged in problems they find meaningful.

Sustainability can enter the undergraduate curriculum in a number of ways. Interdisciplinary concepts and teaching methods can be infused into existing courses to emphasize the interaction between disciplinary content and sustainability. These approaches can provide new skill sets that are not the focus of traditional degree programs including both specific skills and process oriented skills. This will translate well into a modern work environment where employers have a solution-oriented focus and want people who can use their existing skills toward novel applications and adapt to a changing future. Students trained with interdisciplinary backgrounds take their skills and knowledge to interesting places and they frequently come back later to build academically on those experiences.

Alternatively, entire programs can be created or modified to emphasize sustainability. Programs engaging with sustainability are inherently interdisciplinary and thus challenge the administrative structure of many institutions. Frequently, the university financial model and faculty tenure and promotion reward system impede educators from making changes toward learning for sustainability. This leads to lost opportunity because sustainability programs can be highly popular and interdisciplinary sustainability programs can be models for integrated learning more broadly. Integrating learning across the institution is recognized as an important goal for liberal studies in higher education, and focusing on sustainability is one mechanism for achieving this.