More campuses are practicing than teaching green

Colleges find that changing a light bulb is easier than revamping curriculum

By Ted O´Callahan

As 18 million students return to more than 4,000 colleges and universities around the country this fall, whatever color the foliage may be, campuses are going green. A Princeton Review study reports that 63 percent of students want to know about a school’s commitment to the environment as part of their college decision.

Many college administrators are on the bandwagon too, believing environmental issues will be the key challenge facing this generation of students, and schools must prepare them to find solutions. Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College, explained that the school’s comprehensive environmental sustainability effort aims to graduate students who are prepared to make a difference. “We believe firmly that Goucher College can set an example for the larger community.”

While the environment is certainly on the minds of those in higher education, a recent study of 1,068 schools by the National Wildlife Federation found an interesting distinction between greening a campus and its curriculum: overall attention to teaching environmental courses has lagged behind the greening of buildings and grounds. Only 53 percent of colleges offer environmental studies majors or minors.

It is much simpler to take on the tangible task of improving lighting or water efficiency than to wrangle faculty, a notoriously independent group, for a systematic greening of the curriculum.  This is particularly true in areas that haven’t traditionally considered the environment as part of the discipline. A chemistry department offers an example.

John Warner won a presidential science mentoring medal for his work at the University of Massachusetts that included co-creating the field of green chemistry, which invents environmentally responsible products and materials. After ten years of effort to build up a program, he says, “academic inertia is probably the largest barrier. There is no ‘opposition’ to green chemistry, per se, but more to any change at all. When a faculty is faced with introducing a subject they themselves never had in their education, some immediately question the need.” He added, “Younger untenured faculty typically see the opportunity, but they risk not getting tenure if they criticize the existing system.”

The number of students interested in the green chemistry program dwarfs the number interested in the rest of the chemistry department, according to Warner. “When students find out ‘I can have a job where I’m contributing to a better future, literally with my own hands helping to save the world, and have a decent salary at the same time?’ It’s, ‘Wow. Sign me up.’”

And the excitement is two-fold. Warner says the program gets calls from companies looking to hire green graduates nearly every day. Even when there is excitement around a new endeavor finding funding and faculty with the expertise in the subject is an ongoing challenge.

While changing sustainability from the mot du jour into something that sticks around may take time, enthusiasm is high and many professors are already leading their departments. There are also some 600 environmentally-focused institutes at schools across the country. And full-fledged programs are popping up. Arizona State University’s new School for Sustainability offers a range of undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Many schools are also finding ways to introduce green facets to existing endeavors. Julian Dautremont-Smith, Associate Director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), says new offerings come to his attention each week, “What we are really seeing take off is programs that offer a grounding in a traditional field and an overlay of sustainability: environmental architecture, sustainable agriculture, or ecological economics.”

Examples span the gambit. A green design conference at the Fashion Institute of Technology featured a student-designed bamboo jersey dress and hemp silk wedding gown. The B-school gut course Operations Management at Stanford University prepares MBA students to manage sustainability issues by teaching the way Starbucks encourages fair trade and improved farming techniques. And for 10 students at Duke, campus housing is a green-roofed, live-in laboratory. The energy-efficient house began as an engineering school project but now any student can submit an improvement project to be completed during their time living there.

For those seeking off-campus opportunities, getting out on a glacier is an option for students at Alaska Pacific University or any of the other schools in the Eco League, a consortium of colleges that offer experiential programs with environmental focuses.

Some traditional accounting classes are incorporating a triple bottom line, where social and environmental impacts are considered alongside financials in assessing the health and success of an organization. The University of Cardiff in the UK offers a PhD and there are online offerings in the U.S. And Willamette University offers a green psychology course that links environmental problems to understanding human behavior.

Goucher College is one of the 4% of schools that have made environmental literacy a mandatory part of the curriculum. While some colleges make it a required part of the first year, Goucher students must simply work one of many environmental courses into their studies before graduating.  Sarah Weissman, a senior, was drawn to the school’s small size and open atmosphere. Her response to the green requirement: “I think it is an intelligent move. I wouldn't mind being a little forced to learn more about the physical world we live in and what is happening to it.”

According to Dautremont-Smith, “The green sector has taken off in the last few years, so there are more jobs than ever before. Employers want people who understand sustainability issues and students want to contribute to solving environmental problems.”

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