By Barbara LeBlanc
Sustainability addresses a timeless question: how can communities and economies meet the needs of the current generation in a way that future generations can also thrive?
Too large for a single field of study to answer, the question has implications for every walk of life—from how buildings are designed and products are manufactured to how resources are procured and goods and people transported. It affects how ideas are communicated, policy is made, and even how societies are organized. And it requires experts in all those fields to work together.
The big, interdisciplinary picture
“Students majoring in science, for example, should know something about how sustainability interacts with running a business or promoting women’s rights or designing an advertising campaign,” said Tara Rajaniemi, associate professor of Biology. “When those students graduate and get jobs as scientists, they will be able to collaborate with business people, advocates, and designers because they’ll understand where those people are coming from.”
Established in 2008, the Sustainability minor is the university’s largest and fastest growing minor, said Robert Darst, program director and associate professor of Political Science. Nearly 70 students from fields including engineering, arts and sciences, and business are enrolled.
“Climate change is central to the lives of millennials and post-millennials,” he said. “They are really interested in it.”
Darst expects the program to continue to expand, as businesses increasingly seek employees who can help them meet growing pressure from investors, government regulators, and consumers for green, sustainable practices. In fact, UMass Dartmouth is hoping to add an Environmental Science and Sustainability major as early as fall 2018.
A curriculum for all majors
Students in the minor study sustainability as it relates to transportation, design, the business supply chain, alternative energy, and public policy. Engineering and science students learn how sustaina-bility and climate change affect communities. Humanities students learn the science behind climate change and sustainable practices, and how to communicate it in a way that non-scientists can understand.
Jerry Blitefield, associate professor of English, said he started studying the rhetoric of the environmental debate when he found he could not refute a colleague’s claim that climate change was a hoax. Now, he helps students analyze those arguments in his Principals of Sustainability and Environmental Communications classes. “We need to know how to read or hear discourse from others and challenge it critically,” he said.
Effective communication has a concrete purpose in Professor Pamela Karimi’s class, Architecture and Sustainability in the American Post-Industrial City. Using New Bedford as a laboratory, students are learning to plan a historical park, from grant writing through design. “The course promotes the historical consciousness of the built environment while also advocating a better future with sustained life,” Karimi said.
Rachel Kulick, associate professor of Sociology, challenges students to imagine a different world in her Sustainability in Action class—a world that is “less about stuff and more about relationships and communities,” she said.
Chad McGuire, associate professor of Public Policy, has his students researching the policy implications of subsidized national flood insurance. They are preparing a white paper connected to his research on the impact of sea level rise on coastal communities. “We want students to have a broader understanding of the field they are going into,” he said. “A business major may be interested in expanding corporate success. Sustainability helps them consider what corporate success means in a broader, social context.”
Fast fashion, for instance, may produce t-shirts that can be sold profitably at $5 apiece. But companies don’t account for the hidden costs of making that shirt, such as the environmental degradation caused by processing cotton, he said.
Applied knowledge makes an impact
Students are challenged to put what they learn into action, both through class and the campus sustainability program. They have designed trail guides for the trails on campus, established a food pantry for students, and worked on community gardening through the Cedar Dell West Community Garden on campus and a garden they are establishing at New Bedford High School.
Students also have researched ways the University can reduce its carbon footprint and save money through sustainable practices. One group discovered that 54% of trash thrown out on campus could be recycled or composted—but only after examining more than a ton of trash, said Rajaniemi.
Students who take the minor are finding that they are in demand. Brittany Doherty ’14, who majored in business and minored in sustainability, works with the Sustainability Roundtable Inc., a Cambridge firm that helps major corporations develop sustainable practices. She also earned a graduate certificate in Environmental Policy from UMass Dartmouth.
“The executives of these companies tell me they wish they could have received that training when they were in college,” she said. “I really like the big picture approach to both economics and human rights—and how sustainability practices can make lives better.”