Rethinking Sustainability Education in Universities

May 21, 2024

Green City

Sustainability has become a focal point for investors, policymakers and activists. Most corporations and governments have placed the environment on the agenda, implementing strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation at an unprecedented scale. As hotbeds of innovation fostering the next generation of leaders, universities are expected to embed sustainability into their operations and culture. Hundreds of universities have pledged to become net zero within the coming decades, with the University of Toronto leading the way as the number one ranked academic institution for sustainability by the QS World University Rankings in 2024. The university tops the list with impressive initiatives like the recent construction of a large urban geo-exchange field for year-round heating and charges on all university-paid air travel for biodiversity projects.

However, at the top universities for sustainability and beyond, students often lack the opportunities to gain crucial real-world experience and problem-solving skills. Due to the emphasis on graded coursework, the sustainability curriculum, where it exists, tends to be more theoretical than practical. In addition, the rapid pace of development in the sustainability space has left university programmes struggling to keep up with relevant coursework for undergraduates. Meanwhile, the demand for sustainability professionals is soaring, with the World Economic Forum reporting that the transition to a low-carbon economy will necessitate almost 24 million green jobs worldwide. So how can universities bridge the gap between higher-level education and the need for leaders in sustainability?

Teaching sustainability is difficult. After all, sustainability is interdisciplinary and often requires multiple approaches to a single problem. For instance, constructing a solar farm requires engineers for the panel installation, biologists for the site selection and policy experts for permitting. As a result, a specialised major in sustainability, such as Environmental Science, tends to be a generalist degree, providing students with a distribution of knowledge across multiple disciplines from chemistry to public policy. However, the most challenging aspect of sustainability lies in carrying out programs designed to promote environmental stewardship. As a result, colleges often struggle to teach the most crucial component of sustainability: real-world problem-solving.

Another challenge for universities is keeping up with modern trends in the sustainability space. For instance, environmental policy classes focus on the impact of environmental laws such as NEPA or the Clean Air Act, but omit recent legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act or Europe’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. Few universities have dedicated Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) courses either, despite the increasing demand for professionals with this knowledge.

An informal survey of sustainability-oriented college students conducted by the Spaceship Academy reflects these sentiments. A student at the University of California San Diego stated: “There are few classes that discuss sustainability and climate change in a broader sense. Most classes have a curriculum that centres around traditional science, rather than science that reflects the modern world.” Naturally, many students interested in pursuing a career in sustainability opt for Environmental Science. However, many find that the strong emphasis on traditional science courses doesn’t align with their interests in understanding sustainability. When asked how the university could improve its sustainability curriculum, the same student continued, “More classes that discuss real-world sustainability, as well as more political classes surrounding actions that students should take.”

Another student at UCLA echoed this desire for a stronger applied and career-oriented focus: “I would enjoy further emphasis on industry guest speakers and a course tailored to career preparation in the sustainability space. UCLA also needs to offer more opportunities to professional environmental organisations on campus, so students engaging in sustainability have access to career preparation.” Due to the tendency towards research and theory in academia, hosting guest speakers from various sustainability fields would be a fantastic way to bridge the gap between higher-level education and the professional world. Students can receive valuable insight into environmental careers, learn what skills they should develop and see how leaders tackle contemporary environmental problems.

Our survey also asked students to rank the perceived importance of various factors to their professional development for sustainability. Unsurprisingly, internships were ranked as the most important experience for students. These internships represent an opportunity to engage in real-world work, from corporate sustainability to regulatory compliance. However, securing an internship is difficult, especially as college courses don’t teach most of the skills sought after in these sustainability roles. Subsequently, students ranked participation in student organisations as the second-most important component in their professional development. These student-led clubs offer the next best opportunity to gain exposure to sustainability matters from political advocacy to consulting, providing the key stepping stone towards an internship.

Innovation challenges and case competitions ranked third. Frequently hosted by large companies looking for talent, these competitions serve as a pathway to an internship. More importantly, these competitions unlock students’ potential for problem-solving. Sustainability prompts range from how Apple could improve its decarbonisation plan to how Los Angeles could incorporate a more sustainable urban layout. Through the process of delivering a solution, students develop crucial research, analytical and communication skills.

Professional training programs tied college courses in importance for fourth. These training programs, from certifications to technical boot camps, serve as another way for students to fill the holes within the university curriculum. Since students can’t tailor college courses to specific interests, they enrol in programs that teach relevant topics or enhance their professional development. For instance, the LEED accreditation equips professionals with knowledge of sustainable design, the building certification process and a resume boost. Sustainability training start-ups like the Spaceship Academy have also stepped in to provide students with mentorship, innovation challenges, and toolkits for sustainability problem-solving, adhering to a learning-by-doing approach. These external programs offer the most inclusive and extensive opportunities for students to level up their sustainability skills.

In conclusion, colleges need to adapt sustainability curriculums to match contemporary times. For instance, more universities should develop ESG programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels, following in the footsteps of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Miami.

Among these skills are carbon accounting, ESG reporting, and life-cycle analyses. The demand for these skills in the workforce is growing, especially with mandatory carbon disclosures on the way in North America and Europe. Colleges should also create courses designed for students to gain professional accreditations in sustainability, such as the LEED Green Associate or CFA ESG Investing credential.

The President of Clean Consulting, a sustainability-oriented student organisation at UCLA, stated that the university should “provide students access to career-defining certifications for no cost including LEED and TRUE.” Students currently have to take and pay for these courses out of pocket alongside their college coursework. Considering the value of these credentials early in the career of these students, universities should incorporate these courses into the curriculum. Through these offerings, colleges will better prepare students to pass these exams and equip them with the pivotal knowledge necessary to become sustainability leaders.

Finally, sustainability at its core mandates problem-solving. Based on student feedback in the survey, universities should increase professional development opportunities that integrate a real-world approach. Following the University of Toronto’s Campus as a Living Lab programme, universities should devise courses that enable students to earn course credit while simultaneously participating in campus projects that advance the institution’s sustainability goals. Senior practicum projects, where students work on applied projects relevant to their field of study, certainly contribute to sustainability skill-building, but more opportunities earlier in college would enable students to develop transferable skills sooner.

Nevertheless, universities remain emblems of sustainability as the source of green innovation and technology. In the past decade, universities have also introduced new degrees and expanded course offerings in sustainability, recognising the importance of instilling a value for nature in the next generation.

A collection of motivated educators and environmental experts are innovating new methods of teaching and communicating sustainability. With the help of these change makers, environmental curriculums in higher-level education will undoubtedly reach maturity within the next decade.

In the meantime, students should take advantage of opportunities outside the classroom to progress their sustainability expertise. As mentioned, students should participate in clubs and innovation challenges matching their sustainability interests, enrol in tailored skill-building programs like the Spaceship, or seek relevant certifications. The next generation of sustainability leaders will harness their ingenuity to think outside the box. At the moment, this means thinking beyond their current college curriculum.