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 Profile: Professors' Approach to Sustainability

Posted on Friday, Nov. 5, 2010

The challenge of adapting sustainability into the curricula is certainly not the same for every faculty member. Faculty in different colleges and departments face unique challenges when folding sustainability into everyday course work. Some struggle more with convincing colleagues of the importance of sustainability, while others struggle to find enough time to teach all that is relevant. This profile highlights three faculty members from different colleges, showcasing their approaches to integrating sustainability across the curriculum.

Leavey School of Business: Stephen Smith
J.C. Penney Research Professor and Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems, Stephen Smith participated in a Penstemon project workshop after he began teaching environmental economics in 2006. Smith benefited from the networking aspect of the program, "because it put me in touch with a number of other faculty who teach environmental material. We have shared a lot of references and other teaching resources," he said. "Also, a number of local companies have been the source for my class projects on sustainable business practices."

Teaching in the Leavey School of Business, many of Smith's lessons focus on the benefit/cost analysis of sustainability. "To do benefit/cost analysis correctly, you really need to understand the underlying scientific facts related to whatever actions are being considered," Smith explained. "I have learned a lot about climate change, energy technologies and the health effects of pollution, in addition to sustainable business practices and environmental economics." In his learning process, Smith explained that he changed his mind on certain issues pertaining to sustainability.

In business, where the bottom line is what matters, not necessarily sustainability, Smith has seen mixed reactions from colleagues. "Some have strongly supported it and were very helpful with providing new material that I could use. Others have been skeptical," he said. Smith has "seen a number of colleagues change their minds about certain sustainability issues as they learned more facts."

School of Engineering: Tim Healy
Professor Tim Healy of Electrical Engineering started focusing on sustainability in a very different manner. While teaching in the 1970s, the Oil Crisis forced classes to focus on alternative energy. This caused Healy to come out with his book “Energy and Society” in 1975. After the Oil Crisis had subsided, the emphasis on alternative energy began to ebb. Healy then got involved again later when students with the 2007 Solar Decathlon project asked him to be the electrical engineering advisor. After learning much about photovoltaic energy and other solar processes, Healy decided to expand on the existing umbrella graduate course on sustainability and create a class solely focused on photovoltaic energy. He now incorporates photovoltaic energy into the introductory undergraduate classes on circuit energy.

Fortunately for Healy, the Engineering Department was very open to creating more sustainability-focused classes. Engineering 060, a Core class called Sustainable Electric Energy, can be taken by any student in response to the growing focus on sustainability in engineering as a field. “Sustainability,” Healy says, “is going to be everywhere [and] everybody is a piece of the problem.” It is a business, economic, legal, and sociological problem. Now there is a Certificate in Renewable Energy at SCU in Engineering, and a newly-approved Master of Science in Sustainable Energy.

College of Arts & Sciences: Chad Raphael
Some faculty have been incorporating sustainability into their curriculum for years, like Professor Chad Raphael, Chair of the Communication Department, who has yet to go through Penstemon training. In Environmental Communication (Comm 120A) students focus "on tools for analyzing environmental discourse. Students learn about framing and apply it to the many ways in which environmental issues have been framed from perspectives such as conservationism, environmental justice, and eco-capitalism," Raphael explained. Students learn classical argumentation theory and how then apply it to environmental debates. The class culminates with a small environmental communication campaign.

"I want students to draw on what they've learned about how others have communicated about the environment to engage with the public themselves. Some create Facebook groups to persuade their friends and family to take action on an environmental issue. Others create videos, web materials, or Powerpoint presentations for advocacy organizations. Last year, most of the groups conducted research and created communication examples for SCU's Office of Sustainability," Raphael explained.

Over the years, Raphael has witnessed student interest in sustainability and the environment grow. "Especially among those who are least familiar with environmental issues," he added.

A hot sustainability topic in his classroom is environmetal health. In his Technology and Communication class (Comm 12), students contribute to a Wikipedia entry and many choose to focus on e-waste and the health impacts of electronics.

"All students need the opportunities to learn about sustainabilty issues," Raphael said. He hopes to see the integration of sustainability across the curriculum grow in the coming years. "Our job is to prepare all students to be effective professionals and citizens who can recognize and address the major issues that are likely to face them in their lifetimes. Most of those issues will be related to sustainability in some way," Raphael added.

Interviews by Molly Kagel, '11 and Emily Orbanek, '11, Sustainability Interns.
Article by Emily Orbanek, '11, Sustainability Intern.

Tags: Curriculum, Education and Research, Profiles