Re-thinking sustainability: Same certificate, new curriculum

May 15, 2018

Along with a strong desire to solve the environmental challenges of today, Nelson students are eager to tackle issues in sustainability. As an umbrella term or meta-concept, sustainability has dimensions that are environmental, economic, and social. However, those working in sustainability-related fields have yet to agree on a single, clear definition for sustainability, which can be problematic for students hoping to learn the basic tenets of sustainability. As the sustainability certificate faculty advisor, Ann Terlaak has sought to address that issue by remodeling the current framework for the sustainability certificate and designing the new curriculum to include a more comprehensive view of sustainability for the UW-Madison campus.

Terlaak is an Associate Professor of Management and Human Resources in the Wisconsin School of Business as well as the sustainability certificate advisor, a role she took on in early 2017. Since then, she has worked to streamline the sustainability curriculum to better reflect the different dimensions of sustainability, how they interconnect, and how these ideas integrate into local communities.

The new curriculum features a reorganization of the current sustainability curriculum into four “dimensions” of knowledge and skills: (1) environmental, (2) economic and (3) social. Students will then examine how these individual components interact with and complement each other in a fourth dimension that Terlaak calls the “systems dimension” of sustainability.

A “systems” focus on sustainability is meant to foster a greater appreciation and understanding of how students can intervene in a system that is interconnected. Terlaak said this allows students to zoom in on the minute details and then take a step back to see the larger picture. Small changes in one area may have large impacts on the entire system, and understanding where and how to effectively create those changes will provide a big benefit overall.

It wasn’t easy to develop the new curriculum, however. Terlaak admitted it was challenging because of the interconnectivity between the different aspects of sustainability, but she settled for a framework that emphasized the fundamentals to ensure students would get exposure to a comprehensive notion of sustainability. “We want to make sure students have indeed been exposed to all three dimensions and the inherent systems nature of sustainability before leaving the UW,” Terlaak said. “With the redesign, I think we can accomplish that goal.” What is more, “students must demonstrate literacy and competency over the material,” Terlaak said. “You can’t turn someone into a complete sustainability expert through a certificate, but the new curriculum should help streamline these ideas into very practical uses for students.”

The redesign also allows environmental studies major students to enroll in the sustainability certificate. The coursework in these two programs is distinct enough to allow this, Terlaak notes.

But not everything about the certificate has changed. Notably, the community engagement component still remains an important part of the curriculum. Under this requirement, students must volunteer at a sustainability-related site of the Morgridge Center Badger Volunteers program or complete an individual community service project for 40 or more hours. Students then write a reflection essay to understand how the experience has impacted their understanding of sustainability and how they’ve contributed to a more sustainable world.

What has changed, however, is that community engagement has become one of the primary learning outcomes for the certificate program. Terlaak believes community engagement is a cornerstone of sustainability education, so she updated the learning goals to reflect the power of civic responsibility in creating sustainability movements and changes.

“You can argue that it’s all about profit and everyone will be better off with sustainability, but it only gets you so far,” Terlaak said. “I think there needs to be an inherent sense of civic responsibility among the population for sustainability to actually make progress.”

In the 2018-2019 academic year, changes to the certificate go into effect on September 1, 2018. However, students graduating in May 2018 still must meet current certificate requirements, and students currently enrolled in the certificate or who plan to enroll before September 1, 2018, can choose whether they want to follow the new requirements or the older ones.