Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

New sustainability minor starts this fall

Sustainability has been a major issue on the University of Denver campus in recent years,  and now it will also be a minor.

Starting in fall 2009, undergraduates from most fields of study across campus can compliment their major with a minor in sustainability tailored to work with their selected major. The program is one of a handful of such offerings at campuses across the country, says Michael Keables, a DU associate professor of geography who helped lead the push to develop it.

Keables, a member of the DU Sustainability Council subcommittee on curriculum and research, says creating the new minor took about a year. Many of the courses were already offered through a variety of campus departments, but they hadn’t been connected and brought together, he says.

“We had a graduate student go through all of the various undergraduate and graduate catalogs,” he says. “There was something like 400 courses with at least some small portion that connected to what we saw as sustainability.”

Faculty members were also encouraged to recommend their courses to the planning committee.

The trick was paring down the offerings and focusing on the three fundamentals of sustainability: environment, economics and social equity. In the end, a core group of faculty helped bring the offerings down to just over 50 approved courses drawn from biology, geography, business, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, history and political science. The broad range allows students to focus on issues that apply to their major while adding key components of sustainability, Keables says.

“It’s not going to be a traditional minor where everyone takes the same five courses,” he says. “This is designed so each student can apply sustainability to his or her own field.”

Given the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the minor, an advisory board responsible for administering the program will be comprised of a group of faculty representatives from the undergraduate units.

Students entering the program will take a common “gateway” course then branch off to customize the degree with four courses selected from the three themes of sustainability. Students complete the program by taking a final capstone seminar that will bring them together to work as a team on a service-learning or research project focused on a problem related to sustainability. The seminar will include a speaker series that will be open to the University community.

Lisa Dale, a lecturer with Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, will be the first this fall to teach the gateway course Sustainability and Human Society. She says she’s excited about the program, and with sustainability the new buzz word across America, from college campuses to corporate boardrooms, she says it was time for DU to make the leap.

“By looking at the three pillars of the program, we’re trying to convey the complexity of sustainability,” Dale says. “We’re trying to educate students, get them thinking. Just recycling doesn’t mean you’ve achieved sustainability. Sustainability is institutional. If we begin to think of it as a set of principles, it gives us a lens for viewing the world.”

Dale, also a Sustainability Council member, says students have been asking for a course focusing on sustainability and says employers will be looking for that component in graduates, regardless of their field. Even without broadcasting the first offering, more than 20 students found the gateway course and have signed up for the fall.

Keables says Provost Gregg Kvistad and several deans were supportive throughout the process and eager to assist. In particular, Alayne Parson, Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, agreed to provide the initial funding to support the staffing of the gateway course.

Looking ahead, Keables says there are plans to begin discussing the creation of an interdisciplinary graduate program in sustainability. As the world demands more expertise, DU could fill a niche with a level of training students will need to succeed.

“The key factor in all of this was the collaboration of faculty from across campus,” Keables says. “Faculty members are so busy in their own fields, it was rewarding to see them come together and to see how committed to sustainability so many people are at the University of Denver.”

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