Curriculum Models

Over the past year about eighty Western faculty members have participated in discussions about building an academic program in Sustainability. In Winter 2009, these discussions led the the group ("Sustainability Academy") to propose five building blocks for a sustainability curriculum at Western:

  1. A General Education program in sustainability literacy;
  2. Classes that develop sustainability research skills;
  3. An organizational framework that will support independent student research and community outreach;
  4. An "overlay minor" in Sustainability, and
  5. Formation of a faculty oversight working group ("Sustainability Studies Academy") to participate in teaching, mentoring, and guiding the development of a sustainability curriculum at WWU.

In Spring of 2009, Western's Sustainability Institute Initiative was formally established and charged with continuing the work begun by the Sustainability Academy in 2008. In fall of 2009, a steering subgroup of the Academy deepened the discussion of curriculum, and continues to endorse the same five building blocks. As its first project the group is committed to fielding the first course in a proposed two or three course introductory Gen Ed sequence in Sustainability.

A number of models have been explored to find an effective curricular structure and appropriate learning objectives for the Gen Ed course sequence. One result of this exploration is the conclusion that Sustainability is not a separate discipline, but rather is a way of integrating a number of tools and viewpoints from existing disciplines. In a way, this integrative "interdisciplinarity" is what General Education has always sought to instill in students through distributional requirements, core curricula, or Great Books. But in practice Gen Ed has become a fragmented collection of discipline-specific perspectives that students seldom have an opportunity to integrate in meaningful ways.

The Sustainability Gen Ed sequence must lay the groundwork for students to go on to major or minor in Institute programs which are yet to be developed, and to foster in them the kind of "interdisciplinarity" that is essential for the effective practice of sustainability in any chosen field. Therefore, tentative goals of sustainability education are for students to develop abilities to:

  • Recognize and assess the philosophical, historic, ethical, social, political, psychological, scientific, and practical dimensions of human behavior and its impacts on life-sustaining systems over time.
  • Transcend traditional discipline-driven approaches to learning and knowledge;
  • Create for themselves a broad concept of sustainability as an integrative, multidisciplinary paradigm;
  • Participate in problem-based and community-oriented project teams;
  • Apply systems thinking, media literacy, data analysis, collaborative problem solving, intergenerational perspectives, ecological literacy, and "green" economics and business practices to a wide range of problems;
  • Present results of their work in public, such as poster sessions, student-led seminars, web-based media, or print publications;
  • Develop, comprehend, and apply principles, tools, and values of sustainability to the resolution of complex socio-environmental problems at the individual, social, and institutional level.

A number of curricular models have been explored by a steering group of the Faculty Sustainability Academy and have been converging toward a consensus model to act as a starting point for both a) a 200-level General Education sequence of two or three courses, and b) a series of sustainability minors to be offered in partnership with individual colleges or disciplines.

The curricular model currently under discussion (2 page pdf) is to build the Gen Ed sequence around a "compelling narrative" that would include selected material from the natural sciences to explore how geophysical systems work, the life sciences to explore how living systems work interdependently with the physical world, the social and behavioral sciences to explore how people behave interdependently with the natural world, the humanities to explore the values, cultures, and ethics which guide individual and group behavior, and systems and technology to explore how intra- and inter-system problems can be approached and resolved.

This Gen Ed sequence model can be adapted for the development of minors, majors, research projects, and capstone projects as the Institute develops. It should be possible for a student in any major to construct a minor in sustainability by taking the Gen Ed sequence and a series of courses from fields outside their major area. For example, a minor in sustainability for a natural science major might include courses in social and life sciences, humanities, technology, and psychology, in addition to a core sequence (which might include the Gen Ed sequence and a capstone project of some kind. The link presents a rough outline of learning themes for both a 200-level course sequence and subsequent minors or majors in sustainability.