Initial Publication Date: September 27, 2012

Workshop Synthesis

During the 2012 workshop on Programs that Bring Together Geoscience and Sustainability, we asked participants to reflect on these kinds of programs: their strengths, what challenges they face, and what opportunities they offer. Here are selected comments from their responses.

See workshop outcomes that build from the ideas expressed in this synthesis.

Jump down to Sustainability programs | Strengths | Challenges | Program outcomes and employment options | Opportunities

Sustainability Programs: Scope and Diversity of Models

  • Teaching sustainability can be/has been defined in a wide variety of ways. At its heart is teaching students not only to identify problems but to craft solutions that allow the resource needs of human civilization to be met while maintaining the natural systems of the planet that support life.
    • Sustainability is not the only context that can be used to draw connections between geoscience and students' lives. We should be mindful to label accurately our courses and programs, using sustainability only when we attend to solutions in conjunction with problems.
    • Curricula designed to meet this goal produce students who can understand the confluence of scientific, economic and social justice issues that characterize the "three-legged stool" or "triple bottom line" approaches of the business world.
  • A wide diversity of program models are in place for bringing together geoscience and sustainability. This is both appropriate and desirable. Programs need to capitalize on the strengths of their institutions and the opportunities of their location while serving the needs of their students and communities. Technology is creating opportunity for new types of models. Distance learning can not only increase reach but also enable interinstitutional collaboration, broadening the expertise available within a program. We seek to infuse geoscience and sustainability throughout the system of higher education. This will require capitalizing on the full diversity of models to engage faculty who are not already passionate about this topic.


  • Sustainability programs are very popular, with rapidly growing enrollments and student populations that are more diverse than traditional geology majors. Their relevance to the world we live in and flexibility in addressing topics of widespread interest provides a strong vehicle for bringing geoscience to a larger audience/workforce. Stanford tracking shows the viability of its Earth System major for infusing geoscience into broad sectors of the workforce.
  • Integration of geoscience and sustainability provides a major opportunity for diversifying the geoscience workforce and for creating broader geoscience literacy. In addition to focusing on the traditional curriculum, literacy will be well served by creating access to programs for non-traditional students, including high school students and established professionals looking to broaden their understanding of sustainability issues. Strategies can include distance learning programs, outreach to high schools from community colleges or other four-year institutions, or certificate programs.
  • Strengths of these programs are problem-based and experiential learning, service learning and internships. These are pedagogies known to support learning and develp higher order thinking skills advocated for adoption broadly in undergraduate STEM education. Programs teaching sustainainability and geoscience in this way provide a model for implemention of progressive pedagogies in their institution.
  • While expensive, there is substantial added value in true team-teaching of courses. In addition to bringing more expertise to instruction, team teaching allows students to sort through and then integrate multiple perspectives, hypotheses, and opinions. Team teachers can also serve as role models to demonstrate effective interdisciplinary cooperation in tackling a problem or a solution.
  • Addressing issues of sustainability provides an opportunity to engage students, campus staff, and the local community together in addressing local challenges. Enhancing students' connection to place (typically the area in and around their campus) is a necessary step to fostering a populace that will support conservation of ecosystems and greater appreciation of local cultural, management, and policy challenges.
  • Bringing together economics, ethics and science to address sustainability is an intellectually powerful focus. It provides opportunities to strengthen relationships between institutions and their communities and between academia and society. It also provides opportunities to bring together schools within an institution. Capitalizing on the interests of business and other professional schools will provide new financial models, new intellectual and research opportunities, and new legitimacy for our programs. Similarly, thinking proactively about areas in which geoscience understanding bring a competitive advantage (e.g. global security) opens new opportunities.


  • Programs engaging with sustainability are inherently interdisciplinary and thus challenge the adminstrative structure of many institutions. Successfully addressing challenges related to the financial model and reward system that impede integrated learning for sustainability - highly popular programs driven by student demand - strengthens the institution's ability to support integrated learning in a wide variety of areas. Integrating learning across the institution is recognized as an important goal for liberal studies in higher education.
  • A common design for these programs is to rely heavily on courses taught in support of disciplinary programs. In this design coordination across disciplines becomes an important challenge. Structures for managing these courses are essential to long term success and have been developed in some cases. These strategies can also be used to address the challenges of cognate courses for traditional disciplinary majors and to support strong interdisciplinary programming in other topical areas.
  • All programs report the importance of courses that provide the backbone for the program. These courses need to be staffed by faculty who are contractually committed to the program to provide stability. Programs that are entirely created from existing courses with no new FTE find this to be challenging particularly as they age and mature.
  • There are relatively few examples of successful integration of sustainability into traditional geoscience courses or of geoscience into courses addressing issues of sustainability in other disciplines. These are opportunities that need to be further explored.
  • The departmental and institutional administration play a key role in stregthening or inhibiting these initiatives. Without administrative support and careful thought about incentive structures/financial models and other administrative issues, these initiatives can fail.

Program Outcomes and Employment Options

  • While sustainability programs draw students to STEM disciplines, including the geosciences, who might never have considered studying science, these students may not leave with the same quantitative background or disciplinary expertise as geoscience students. Thus these students may not be competitive for traditional geoscience jobs. Rather, these students have a different set of skills in interdisciplinary problem solving. Alumni report that the lack of easily marketed skills can be a barrier to entry into the job market. Many of these programs have the flexibility and adaptability to respond to new career categories. We need to be mindful of helping students develop and articulate skills that support initial entry into the job market.
  • Many [workshop participants] described their programs as aimed at developing interdisciplinary problem solving skills rather than specific knowledge. This approach is in line with recent emphasis on skills in the design of programs of higher education. However, there is still work to be done articulating the skills outcomes of these programs and developing measures for evaluating the success of programs in meeting them. At the same time, further thought is needed to determine if there is in fact a core knowledge base.
  • It is clear that interdisciplinary problem solving and systems thinking are needed to solve the problems our society faces and the alumni panel strongly believe in the value of an interdisciplinary degree. However, we have relatively little information that would guide an understanding of the employment potential for graduates of these programs now or in the future. Analysis of geoscience employment does not include new sectors imagined as likely employers and in particular does not look at the value of employees with broad knowledge as opposed to traditional geoscience quantitative and field skills. Most schools lack information on the employment of their alumni. It is promising that environmental studies is considered a strong complement, creating a competitive advantage for students in business schools and other professional degree programs. This opportunity needs to be explored further.


Interdisciplinary sustainability programs can:

  • be college/university leaders in (and case studies for) educational reform, out-of-the-box thinking about educational advances, and approaches for high level learning;
  • engage and train a broad range of interested and passionate students (through degree programs and through general education and other course opportunities) in innovation and problem solving for the world's greatest challenges;
  • build scientific literacy, leadership, and problem-solving skills, thereby increasing the opportunities for employment and creating flexibility in careers;
  • provide internships, service learning, project-based learning, and practical experiences;
  • engage faculty with intersecting interests and passions from across the university, building a multi-disciplinary community with strong institutional voices and influence beyond the educational program;
  • take advantage of courses on sustainability being taught across campus;
  • build cross-department and cross-school partnerships (e.g., business and Earth sciences programs);
  • provide collaborative opportunities and rewards for faculty, including opportunities for multi-disciplinary team teaching, multi-disciplinary research, and continued learning;
  • provide improved opportunities for college/university engagement in local/state communities, corporate and NGO issues, through service learning and other project-based learning;
  • increase gender and URM diversity in the STEM world through recruitment and engagement in sustainability learning and problem solving; and
  • enhance the college/university reputation for cutting edge contributions to major societal challenges and for preparing future leaders who can deal with complexity, thereby increasing fund-raising potential.

All of these opportunities will benefit from efforts to articulate the role and importance of the program (and its faculty and students) to the university and the world. This requires increased communication and attention to public relations.