Sustaining Sustainability: A Role for Curriculum

Grossmont College, Curriculum Committee Chair

The conversation about sustainability and green technologies permeates our society in a variety of venues from newspapers to talk radio, from think tanks to the oval office, and for good reason. Organizations and individuals are broadly interested not only in the future of the planet and the cost to keep it healthy, but also in how they might reduce personal costs for related goods and services such as electricity, petroleum products, paper, etc. In California, community colleges have embraced sustainability efforts in a myriad of ways including recycling, creating new facilities or modifying existing ones, long-term planning, and developing new curriculum. Efforts to develop new curriculum often encounter challenges, and new courses and programs targeting sustainability have not been spared from the usual bumps and bruises along the way. This article focuses on how faculty and curriculum committees can help to provide curriculum opportunities for students to learn about sustainability applications and ecologically minded decisions at both the individual and community level.

An initial challenge is addressing the variety of uses of the word “sustainable.” This term is often included in the college general education (GE) or institutional outcomes, so developing a working definition for community college curriculum is an appropriate place to begin. Some colleges have already moved forward with discussions surrounding what “sustainable” means, and what ecologically sound practices are. Green Technology,, presents a definition that encapsulates what many faculty believe to be at the heart of the matter: “meeting the needs of society in ways that can continue indefinitely into the future without damaging or depleting natural resources… meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Others involved in the field argue that the original focus of sustainability should be on a “trifecta” that includes the interplay between the economy, the environment and society, and that morphing the definition specifically toward green technology waters this down. Regardless of the final definition, the most important consideration is that faculty have thoughtful discussions to define sustainability and once this definition is in place, faculty can begin to create or modify courses, certificates and degrees that incorporate sustainability goals and practices.

Many community college faculty have already been busy integrating sustainability and/or green technology into their curriculum. The Academic Senate Curriculum Committee learned that faculty are typically including these in one of three ways: adding a component to an existing course outline of record, creating a new course, or creating a new certificate or degree program. Some courses naturally lend themselves to incorporation of a discussion of the economy, environment and society, such as in economics, the sciences, and sociology. Other courses are ripe for updating, and students could benefit from the inclusion of these themes in courses such as ethics and political science. Beyond even these, many would argue that there’s potential to include sustainability issues in every course and experience that students have on campus. Faculty teaching the courses in economics, science and sociology might be able to assist with examples of topics to include, current problems that students can ponder solving, and for those interested in project based instruction, the field is open to many ideas.

Rather than just incorporating sustainability and green technology issues into other courses, some colleges have adopted whole courses on such topics. Curriculum committees have initially approved these as stand-alone courses, but with the potential to lead to a full degree or certificate for students in the future. Here are some of the titles of courses recently developed across the state:

  • Principles of Sustainable Agriculture
  • Principles of Sustainable Urban Agricultural Practice
  • Introduction to Sustainable Energy Studies
  • Our Sustainable Future
  • Tapping into Renewable Energy: Sustainable Building
  • Green and Sustainable Organizational Practices
  • Surviving the Future: The (Re)Emergence of Sustainable Cultures
  • Sustainable Integrated Pest Management
  • Career Opportunities in the Emerging Sustainable Society

These and others are currently offered at more than 24 colleges throughout the state. Some are credit and others are noncredit, showing the creativity and innovation of community college faculty to build coursework to meet the needs of a variety of different students. While curriculum development of new courses may be slowed given the budget reductions and an increased emphasis on scheduling basic college skills courses, many colleges find the interest in these new courses is high and thus they offer a potential avenue for growth. Students, faculty, business partners and community leaders all see these courses as an important positive step forward toward meeting evolving workplace demands. The annual Green California Community College Summit, held this year in Pasadena, finds, “community colleges are a focal point for state - and national - efforts to create a green economy and workforce in California.”

With the introduction of new courses, new programs are unlikely to be far behind. From liberal arts to vocational to noncredit, faculty are busy creating programs to help students gain sustainability skills and knowledge that will better prepare them for the workforce or transfer. One such example is career technical education (CTE) programs, which are increasingly focused on the inclusion of green technology. Many have added courses in areas such as construction or auto technology that teach students to apply practices leading to energy conservation, such as training them to install solar panels or compare synthetic motor oil to petroleum products. When possible, vocational courses provide training in the larger social, economic, and environmental contexts behind these practices.

Building on students’ understanding of the synergy within the economy, environment and society often occurs in liberal arts or science courses that emphasize sustainability themes. In practice, it may be easier to bring together theory and practice through a program rather than in an individual course. Such a program could paint a broader picture of sustainability by including courses from a variety of disciplines. For example, business or agriculture courses may focus on business processes leading to sustainable landscapes or pesticides where economics or the environment may drive decision-making, while sociology or environmental science courses may more specifically address the role of integrating sustainability in local or global communities.

New programs from colleges in urban areas as well as rural areas, representing at least eight colleges from all geographic areas have already been submitted to the Chancellor’s Office for approval. Here are a few titles of new programs under review:

  • Sustainable Urban Landscapes
  • Sustainable Agriculture
  • Sustainable Urban Agriculture
  • Environmental Resources: Sustainable Communities
  • Sustainable Construction Management

One challenge always facing curriculum committees is the assignment of a course to one or more disciplines. Because sustainability and its related fields represent an emerging field, it is not yet included as a separate discipline in the list of minimum qualifications ( When deciding which discipline(s) are most appropriate for a course emphasizing sustainability, curriculum committees might first consider agriculture, ecology, engineering technology, and social science (master’s list), and environmental technologies, as well as ornamental horticulture (non-master’s list). The disciplines list also provides two additional options for assigning courses to disciplines when it’s not clear that only one discipline fits: cross disciplinary listings and interdisciplinary studies. Cross listing allows a curriculum committee to assign the course to two disciplines, meaning that a faculty member who meets the minimum qualifications in either one is qualified to teach the course. For interdisciplinary studies, the curriculum committee lists the disciplines relevant to the content of the course, and a qualified faculty member will have a master’s degree in one plus upper division or graduate units in another discipline from the curriculum committee’s list for the course. A new discipline, Sustainability, has been proposed and, if approved in Spring 2011, will be added to the master’s list.

Offering a vibrant and timely curriculum that prepares students for the 21st century is a goal of all community colleges, and sustainability curriculum helps colleges achieve that goal. Instructors can propose courses to bring sustainability and green technology to our students, and local senates and curriculum committees can offer guidance and support on inclusion of these themes across disciplines. As communities increasingly acknowledge responsibility for sustainable practices, community college faculty have a responsibility to develop the curriculum that assures students have exposure to these topics in appropriate and integrated ways.