What does “sustainability in the curriculum” mean? The connection between sustainability and the environment is obvious, but the notion of building other aspects of sustainability into curricula was less evident to me. So, I had a conversation with Jessica Latus, McGill’s newest Sustainability Officer, to learn not only what “sustainability in the curriculum” means, but also what actions instructors might take to build sustainability into their courses.
Carolyn: “Sustainability in the curriculum” may be an abstract concept to some people. Can you explain in concrete terms what it means?
Jessica: Sustainability is a buzzword that’s been in our lexicon for a few decades now, and it’s still very much linked to the environmental movement. Of course, a sustainable society must have an environmentally sustainable foundation, where people have shelter, clean drinking water, and adequate food supply. But the notion that sustainability is only focused on the environment is a misconception.
For society to advance in a sustainable way, there also have to be jobs that pay well enough to afford people access to healthcare and education, for example. So, at its core, sustainability is about fulfilling the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the future.
In the field of education, there’s an entire approach to learning known as education for sustainable development (ESD). This approach understands the mutually dependent nature of the social, economic, and environmental systems, and the importance of informed and active citizens. This is where bringing sustainability into the curriculum comes in.
CS: I can see connections between sustainability and disciplines in Science and Social Science. What kinds of connections can be made with the Humanities?
JL: A connection can be made with the social dimension of sustainability. To advance toward a sustainable society, we cannot be only environmentally sustainable; we also have to be socially just. There has recently been an increase in awareness of the systemic barriers that prevent the voices of some being heard. Those systemic barriers need to be addressed so that folks from marginalized communities can participate equitably in society.
Equity and inclusion are really core components of sustainability. I think sustainability plays an important role in a society’s ability to uphold universal human rights. When we look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, there is just as much focus on not exceeding nature’s rate of replenishment as there is on ensuring that economic systems remain intact for everyone. So, that’s where topics like well-being, gender equality, peace, and justice come into the conversation.
CS: Can you provide examples of how instructors might integrate sustainability into course design?
JL: Yes! One way is to include sustainability learning outcomes (SLOs) in their courses. For example, each student can:
- define sustainability.
- explain how sustainability relates to their lives, values, and actions.
- use their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and their consumer mentality.
- be a change agent or learn a change agent skill.
(See more examples of SLOs.)
While these learning outcomes are applicable across disciplines, they also lend themselves to creating interdisciplinary learning environments. Our 21st century challenges are not going to be solved in silos. They need interdisciplinary collaboration.
Regarding instructional approaches, experiential learning is considered well-suited to sustainability education. Other approaches include collaborative small group learning, inquiry-based learning, service learning, and place-based learning. Sustainability education can be transformative as it enables students to better understand themselves and their relationship to other humans and the natural environment.
CS: What would sustainability in the curriculum success look like at McGill?
JL: I believe that sustainability in the curriculum success results when all courses at McGill have a learning outcome that allows students to make the connection between their coursework and broader sustainability challenges. I believe that all disciplines inevitably relate to sustainability in some way, and students should be readily able to make that connection, no matter their field of study.
In a nutshell, regarding sustainability, there’s something in it for everyone, and we have to make that something visible to students in their courses. It’s during their studies that we can help students develop their knowledge of and values about sustainability that will inform their post-graduation path. In this global marketplace, students have many choices about who they work for and what kind of work they do. We want them to think, “What kind of company or organization do I want to work for? Do I want to work for a company that is doing business as usual or for a wind power company that’s bringing green electricity across the grid? As a future doctor, do I want to participate in Doctors without Borders, bringing healthcare to marginalized communities? As a future publisher, do I want to ensure access to authors of diverse backgrounds?”
I hope students will leave McGill embracing an approach to living that’s not just about reducing their environmental footprint, such as by reducing their plastic consumption or using a reusable water bottle. While these actions are important, it is my hope that they will also have a sense of the three-dimensional framework of sustainability as they embark on their next steps. I think that would be success!
CS: Can you suggest any easy to implement strategies for instructors who want to start building sustainability ideas or actions into their courses?
JL: I think the best place to start would be for instructors to reread their course outlines to find where they can make connections with sustainability. If they don’t see any obvious connections, that’s where we can start having a conversation to find those connections together! They can also assess the learning outcomes for their courses with a sustainability lens.
CS: What suggestions do you have for instructors who would like to learn more about sustainability in the curriculum?
JL: Instructors might get inspiration from McGill-specific examples of sustainability work: this article describing an ophthalmology clinic in Nunavik and this article highlighting Prof. Madhav Badami’s sustainability pedagogy.
A foundational read is UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development Goals: learning objectives. While it’s a long handbook, pages 5-11 will help orient folks to the document, and then they can explore the text for sections relevant to their teaching.
Soon, we’re going to create a community of practice at McGill of faculty who want to learn more about this topic. They will then hopefully be advocates within their Faculties and keep spreading the word. Some “sustainability in the curriculum” workshops are also forthcoming.
CS: What would you like readers to take away from this blog post?
JL: That sustainability should be viewed holistically. A sustainable world is not just an environmentally friendly one; it’s also one that addresses the economic and social dimensions. And furthermore, that students need to understand the interconnected nature of these dimensions in order to create a more just and sustainable planet.
How have you integrated dimensions of sustainability into your courses at McGill? Jessica would love to know! Contact her at email@example.com
Read more about Jessica’s work at McGill in this Reporter article.
Image credit: Dimensions of Sustainability: McGill Office of Sustainability
Photo credit: Monica Allaby
Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!
(Photo credit: Owen Egan)