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Earth Day Goal: Sustainability Across the Curriculum

Monday, Apr. 18, 2011

By John S. Farnsworth

With Earth Day approaching, I thought it might be a good time to invite faculty from throughout the country to join a burgeoning movement dedicated to teaching sustainability across the curriculum.

Those few thousands of us currently engaged in cross-curricular education for sustainability are as interdisciplinary a coterie as you might ever want to join. We teach literature, law, calculus, journalism, and even political science. We are anthropologists, psychologists, physicists, theologians, engineers, and even criminologists.  

While a growing number of institutions, such as my own, have formally embraced a sustainability-across-the-curriculum approach, at many more colleges and universities this remains a faculty-led initiative, delightfully grass-roots, sometimes rigorously organized and sometimes subversively underground.

Some of us develop new courses in which sustainability components are embedded, but others just add a reading here, an assignment there, new case studies or perhaps a new set of problems to solve. Class projects and service learning opportunities also work well. We end up fulfilling all the learning outcomes we have always fulfilled in our regular classes, all the while adding a few moments of active reflection on the challenges of developing sustainable communities.

Education for sustainability must be transformational. It accomplishes nothing to prepare students to pass some sort of sustainability exam if they are unwilling to make sacrifices in order to live a more sustainable lifestyle. A sustainability-across-the-curriculum approach promotes personal transformation when a second professor, perhaps from a completely different discipline than the first, reinforces learning that has taken place elsewhere in the academy.

When I try to integrate a sustainability component into my own classes, I usually begin with a focus on community. I want my students to understand how non-human species are part of their community, and how our level of consumption may affect how other species are able to thrive within their ecological niches. Within our discussions of community we may cover anything from how globalization intensifies ecological challenges to how we might go about fostering a culture of sustainability within our own university.

During our celebration of Earth Day this year, the president of my school, Santa Clara University, has invited the faculty of all our schools and colleges to participate in a campus-wide teach in by adding a sustainability “moment” to our classes. If you’d like to borrow one of our ideas on how to accomplish this, please check our website.

John S. Farnsworth, a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability In Higher Education, directs the Penstemon Project for Sustainability Across the Curriculum at Santa Clara University. 

April 18, 2011

Tags: curriculum, Earth Day, sustainability

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