Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU launches sustainability minor

When Lisa Dale, a lecturer in DU’s Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences divisions, began studying and then teaching something called “sustainability,” she says it was considered an educational oddity, a niche that barely registered.

“I used to walk into my classes and students didn’t know what sustainability was,” she says. “Now, it’s the buzz. It’s in the papers, in the news, every day.”

Her work led to a PhD and environmental policy research. And as the University of Denver started a new academic year on Sept. 14, she taught the first course in the University’s new sustainability minor, making DU one of the few universities in the country to offer such a program.

“This is day one in the new minor,” she tells 20 mostly undergraduate students.

The course Dale opened this month, Sustainability and Human Society, is a “gateway” class designed to introduce students to all facets of sustainability. After completing the course, students can select from classes that will complement their majors. The last part of the minor will be a capstone, where students work in a group setting to complete a large project.

The sustainability minor is expected the work with most majors.

“One of the themes of sustainability is how interdisciplinary it is,” Dale says. “You can be in any field and work in sustainability. Sustainability is relevant in every field.”

The term “sustainability,” she explains in her syllabus, “is defined as meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A survey of the class found chemistry, English, business, geography and Italian majors. There were sophomores, juniors and seniors and a graduate student also.

The minor sprang from the DU Sustainability Council, which was formed in 2007 after Chancellor Robert Coombe signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. By signing the commitment, the University pledges to integrate sustainability into its curriculum and develop plans to become climate neutral. Geography professor Michael Keables, serving on the Sustainability Council with Dale, helped lead a faculty team that inventoried DU’s course offerings and organized them into the new minor. The minor is based in the Department of Geography under the Natural Sciences and Mathematics division.

Keables also says there are plans to discuss the creation of a sustainability graduate program. As the world demands more expertise, he says, DU can fill a niche by providing a level of training students will need to succeed.

Marc Bastnagel, a junior business major, says he jumped at the chance to incorporate a sustainability minor into his studies. An avid outdoorsman, Bastnagel sees sustainability as a rising force in corporate decision making. He spends much time crawling over rugged terrain in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges in his custom-built Jeep, and Bastnagel says he is eager to help promote sustainability in all outdoor activities, showing how every hobby and business can benefit.

“I’m so interested in getting outdoors, that I’d like to carry that into business,” he says. “I think corporations are seeing that if you have someone on staff who understands sustainability, you can still conduct business and make money, but you can do things in a sustainable way, avoiding a lot of mistakes and bad public opinion along the way. It’s good for everyone.”

Dale says she’s glad to help DU organize so many courses into a cohesive program.

In designing Sustainability and Human Society course, Dale says she wanted to push students to get out into the real world and see sustainability in action. In addition to a heavy reading load, students will hear from a range of guest experts in all facets of sustainability. And the course will require students to study a real initiative or problem and create a presentation. Dale told students she expects them to get hands-on, talk with real people and see something concrete.

“There are a lot of ways you can go with this because sustainability can mean lots of different things to different people,” she told them. “Get out there in the real world and see sustainability happen. There are things out there going on in sustainability in every corner of this city. I’m challenging you to find them.”

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