A Sustainable Minor

GW’s new minor in sustainability is generating enthusiasm from students and faculty.

November 5, 2012

view from back of classroom of students raising hands and professor speaking

Sustainability 1001, a new introductory course, is held in Funger Hall.

Each Wednesday night this semester nearly 100 students have gathered in Funger Hall for an interdisciplinary course that examines issues such as climate change, ecosystems, water, energy and sustainable cities.

This is Sustainability 1001 – a new introductory course that serves as the core course for the George Washington University’s undergraduate sustainability minor, which launched in February.

Lisa Benton-Short, the academic program director for sustainability, said she’s impressed by enrollment in the course so far.

“We hope that the continued popularity in this course signals student interest in this area of study,” said Dr. Benton-Short, an associate professor of geography and the interim director of the GW Institute for Sustainability.

Sustainability 1001 will be offered again in the spring semester, and Dr. Benton-Short encourages all undergraduate students to sign up as spring registration begins to open this week.

“Sustainability can complement any student’s studies, and we really want a diverse range of students,” she said. “Our discussion sections and lectures benefit from student diversity.”

The key theme in the course is that sustainability is inherently interdisciplinary – a fact that is reflected in the course’s teaching structure. Five professors from across the university co-teach the course: Peter LaPuma, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health in the School of Public Health and Health Services; Adele Ashkar, director of the Landscape Design & Sustainable Landscape Programs and associate dean for academic excellence in the College of Professional Studies; Lee Paddock, associate dean for environmental studies and professorial lecturer in law at the Law School; and Rumana Riffat, professor of civil engineering and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“While some of our interpretations and interests will naturally vary, there is a lot of like-mindedness in the way we think and the way we see the future,” said Dr. LaPuma, who teaches energy and climate change in Sustainability 1001. “Sustainability is not a discipline unto itself but a way of thinking that we feel everyone needs to embrace. No one discipline really has the market cornered yet on how to do sustainability right. But with many minds thinking at once, we can begin to define it and put together a way of thinking that we believe will be essential in the future.”

Throughout the course, each professor gives a lecture in their area of expertise followed by a panel discussion with all of the course’s professors as well as outside experts in the relevant field who are invited to the class. A recent panel discussion focused on the impact nutrient, pesticide and sediment runoff has on the Chesapeake Bay including the science, legal and policy issues.

“The process has been highly collaborative, and I have learned much from my colleagues in terms of how they approach teaching sustainability,” said Dr. Benton-Short. “This has enhanced my own appreciation of how interdisciplinary sustainability is.”

Max Chen, a junior in the School of Business, said he loves how the course is team taught by several professors because he gets to hear different perspectives.

“The fact that the professors all have their own views and interpretations of sustainability shows that sustainability is a topic that we each need to define and understand for ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Chen is one of 30 undergraduate students who have declared the sustainability minor. Students are typically encouraged to declare minors in their sophomore year once they’ve taken several courses in an area

GW is one of only a handful of schools that offer an undergraduate minor in sustainability. The 18-credit minor, which is overseen by the Office of the Provost, includes the three-credit Sustainability 1001 course.

Students are then 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 are also required to complete a culminating experience, which can include community service, an internship or a research project.

There are currently 98 undergraduate courses that can be counted toward the minor, and these courses are designated by a green leaf in the course bulletin. New courses are continually being classified as green leaf courses. 

“The sustainability minor 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. “It can supplement any major at GW and is intended to help students develop an understanding about the sustainability of society and environment. We believe that any student can benefit from the sustainability minor.”

Students interested in declaring the minor can bring their specific school’s minor declaration form to Dr. Benton-Short to sign.

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. And a survey of more than 1,300 business professionals conducted by the National Environmental Education Foundation found that 65 percent of respondents see environment and sustainability knowledge as valuable, especially in new hires.

Jake Snyder, a junior in the School of Business who has declared the sustainability minor, believes that having the specialized knowledge of sustainability will give him a leg up in the job market.

“I hope that with a sustainability minor, I can bring these ideals into my future career to help whomever I work for become more efficient and effective in their job function, primarily through reducing costs and dependence on inputs,” he said. “The Earth has a finite amount of resources, and as we consume these resources, they will only become more expensive.”

For more information about GW’s new sustainability minor please refer to the Sustainable GW website.