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GW Launches Minor in Sustainability
February 22, 2012
Students can start earning the 18-credit minor this fall.
Responding to student interest and employers' demand, the George Washington University will begin offering a minor in sustainability this fall.
The 18-credit minor, which will not be housed in one particular school but rather overseen by the Office of the Provost, will offer courses in all of the university’s schools and colleges. All GW undergraduate students will be eligible for the minor, regardless of what school they’re in or their major.
“George Washington will be one of the few universities in the country to offer an interdisciplinary minor in sustainability that will cut across all schools and areas of study,” said Steven Lerman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Our mission is to be the premier university in bringing together many disciplines to focus on how we create sustainable systems. We will do this by reaching students through teaching, research and hands-on experience.”
GW will be one of only a handful of schools that offer an undergraduate minor in sustainability.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for graduates educated in concentrations related to sustainability is expected to increase at least 20 percent between 2008 and 2018.
Faculty from across the university collaborated on the curriculum design. Lisa Benton-Short, associate professor of geography, will serve as the first academic director of the program. Dr. Benton-Short said the minor can supplement any major at GW by helping students develop an understanding about the sustainability of society and the environment.
“The undergraduate minor in sustainability allows students to explore the challenges of sustainability and how it may be used to develop solutions to pressing issues at the local, regional and global scale,” said Dr. Benton-Short.
To earn the minor, students will take 18 credits of courses through classroom and experiential learning that span all disciplines at GW. Undergraduates will take a newly created introduction to sustainability course, which will be team-taught by faculty representing different schools.
Students will then be required to take at least three credits in three separate tracks. The environmental and earth systems track focuses on science and engineering, including courses on climate, energy, water and ecology. The society and sustainability track focuses on human well-being and society and includes courses in public health, food, social equity, urban studies, international development and economics. The policy organization and leadership track features policy, governance and leadership and includes courses such as methods, communication, policy, law, business and organizational sciences.
Students will also be required to complete a culminating experience, which could include community service, an internship or a research project.
All of the courses that are eligible to be counted for the minor will be designated with a green leaf in the registration and course bulletins. The green leaf designation signifies that the course addresses issues around social, economic and/or environmental sustainability.
As part of this new initiative, the university will be awarding four grants to faculty this spring to develop green leaf courses related to sustainability.
Unlike other universities where environmental studies may be housed in a single school, GW’s program is designed to be interdisciplinary and requires students to take at least three credits outside of their home school.
Dr. Benton-Short said any student could benefit from the minor because students will learn how to think in a systemic way and appreciate interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving when examining sustainability issues.
“Sustainability isn’t a subject but a way of thinking about the complex interactions our decisions create for society and the environment,” she said.
Jesse Schaffer, a sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in environmental studies, said he plans to minor in sustainability and believes it will be a crucial aspect of his education.
“Globally there is a high demand for those in the field of sustainability, as it is now inevitable that the future of international relations will be shaped within a framework of sustainability,” said Mr. Schaffer. “I think that this minor is an opportunity for students to explore this route and ultimately take it on as a serious field of study and as a lifestyle choice.”
Students will be able to sign up for the introduction to sustainability course as registration opens for the fall next month, and students can begin declaring the minor now. Students will need to get their specific school’s minor declaration form and bring it to Dr. Benton-Short to sign. Rising seniors will not be able to declare the minor as there won’t be enough time for them to complete the requirements. Dr. Benton-Short said the introduction course is capped at 100 students for the fall, but if there is greater demand, the university will offer the introduction course again in the spring.
Dr. Lerman said the sustainability minor could serve as a model for creating future interdisciplinary programs.
“There’s considerable potential for other fields to develop interdisciplinary programs that draw on the strengths of our schools to create new educational opportunities for our students,” said Dr. Lerman.
The interdisciplinary nature of the minor is what freshman Kelsey Desmond is most excited about. A student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences studying French, cross-cultural communications and linguistics, Ms. Desmond is looking forward to taking classes in other schools such as a business class that focuses on how to hold corporations accountable for sustainability or an engineering class about water conservation.
“I think this aspect of the program will allow students to get the fullest and most well-rounded understanding of the term sustainability,” said Isabelle Riu, a sophomore in the Elliott School.
The launch of the minor builds upon the university’s goal to become a model for urban sustainability. In 2009, GW unveiled its Climate Action Plan with goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and reach carbon neutrality by 2040. In 2010, the university released its GWater Plan to reduce its direct expenditures on bottled water by 50 percent by 2016. And this spring, GW will announce plans to enhance ecosystems touched by its footprint.
In the last year, solar thermal panels were installed on the roofs of three residence halls to heat water for the building. Green roofs top four buildings, and a green plaza includes a rainwater reclamation system. The student-run GroW Gardens provide fresh food to underserved Washingtonians. And two residence halls are LEED gold certified.
"GW is committed to being a leader in sustainability," said Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW's Office of Sustainability. "This is an exciting time for the university, and the minor will continue to propel us forward."
Dr. Benton-Short said there is a growing desire for graduates with an expertise in environmental and sustainability issues as sustainability becomes more integrated within the strategies and operations of employers. In a survey of more than 1,300 business professionals conducted by the National Environmental Education Foundation, 65 percent of respondents identified environmental and sustainability knowledge as valuable, especially in new hires.
“The demand will be there for GW students to have this knowledge and skill set,” said Dr. Benton-Short.
Jonathan Carfagno, a sophomore in the Columbian College studying political science and criminal justice, said students planning a career in policy have a responsibility to be educated in sustainability since it’s becoming such a pertinent issue in decision-making at all levels of government.
“Sustainability is an issue that has become and will remain at the political forefront for years to come,” he said.