Nelson Institute Launches Graduate Sustainability Certificate

The new certificate includes capstone projects sourced from UniverCity Year community partnerships.

In spring 2024, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies launched a new sustainability certificate that provides graduate students from any degree an extra credential they can take into the working world.

Dean Paul Robbins said the new 12-credit certificate will make graduates “more effective in addressing the challenges and crises of the future.”

“Whether you are in sociology researching urban housing shortages or in engineering studying new industrial materials, sustainability concepts and skills will be critical for making your work relevant in a rapidly transformed world,” Robbins said.

The certificate aims to prepare graduate students to meet the need that Nelson Institute leaders are hearing from environmental, social, and governance officers at major corporations. These leaders are looking for communicators, chemists, engineers, ethnographers, lawyers, and computer scientists, for example, who speak sustainability and understand systems thinking, life cycle assessment, and carbon accounting.

“Our new certificate empowers grads across all corners of the university to take on new and powerful roles in government, industry, and the not-for-profit sector,” Robbins said.

A water skiing team lined up in formation
Since 2017, Andrea Hicks has incorporated UniverCity projects into the engineering course she teaches. Her course recently finished projects addressing blue green algae in Lake Altoona, pictured here. Photo by Megan Zabel Holmes / Visit Eau Claire

Andrea Hicks, Nelson Institute affiliate, director of Sustainability Education and Research, Hanson Family Fellow in Sustainability, and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said this certificate will set students up for success in the future job market.

“Our goal is to provide students with credentials they can take with them that says they know about sustainability,” Hicks said. “With this certificate, I hope students get credentialing in sustainability to highlight their passion and their hard work.”

Future Vision, Present Action

The structure of the graduate sustainability certificate is similar to one offered to undergraduate students through the Nelson Institute. The new certificate also builds off of the Nelson Institute’s graduate certificate in energy, analysis and policy, which has a successful academic and administrative model.

Anna Gade, who was the associate dean for research and education when the certificate was being developed, said both the theory and practice of interdisciplinarity are embedded within the certificate – a “distinctive value” the Nelson Institute brings to academic programs.

The certificate program consists of classes in three thematic areas that consider environmental, economic, and social factors of sustainability. These themes include:

  • Economics and development
  • Systems analysis, planning, and engineering
  • Environmental policy, health, and social studies

Students will take one class in each theme, which allows students to enroll in advanced courses in areas they are familiar with and introductory courses in the areas that are newer to them.

Gade, who is a professor of environmental studies, said the certificate is designed to be flexible and incorporates the history of sustainability, Indigenous knowledge, justice-centered initiatives, and community-based approaches.

While sustainability can be defined in more limited terms, Gade said UW–Madison thinks “more inclusively and even beyond anthropocentric outcomes,” and interacts with other fields represented in environmental studies like ecology, and partners with Native Nations.

“The whole field is about how to imagine the future, while taking real steps in the present,” Gade said. “As the area of sustainability grows in public awareness, certification such as this is increasingly sought by students, and recognized by employers and other stakeholders.”

Sustainability and Service

To finish the certificate, students will work in teams to complete a capstone project. The capstone projects will likely begin in spring 2025, with the goal of offering the capstone each following year during the spring semester.

All capstone projects will be community-based projects sourced from UniverCity Year (UCY) – a three-year program that connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources to solve community-identified challenges.

“By integrating this program with UniverCity Year, students will get to work now, not later, while they are here, making a difference in communities around the state,” said Robbins, who is also the cochair of the UniverCity Alliance Advisory Board.

UCY is administered by UniverCity Alliance (UCA), which is a network of interdisciplinary leaders across UW–Madison who are inspired to improve local governments and foster innovation in communities of all sizes.

“Wisconsin communities are grappling with the issues of sustainability and coming to UCY for support on projects related to environmental sustainability, climate action plans, and solar projects,” UCA managing director Gavin Luter said. “Through this certificate, UW–Madison students can put their learning into action by working with a local community.”

Hicks, who is a member of the UCA Advisory Board, has incorporated UCY projects into the engineering course she teaches since 2017. She has heard from her students that working on community-based projects cements the sustainability learning outcomes and provides a broader context of meaning to be serving in communities.

“It’s sustainability in action in the context of service,” Hicks said.