GW Adds New Undergraduate Minor in Sustainability

Lisa Benton-Short

Lisa Benton-Short, director of academic programs in sustainability

GW is taking steps to become a premier leader in urban sustainability—in the classroom, around the campus and by reaching out to the community.

Responding to student interest and employers’ demand, GW will begin offering a minor in sustainability in the fall 2012. There is a growing demand for graduates with an expertise in environmental and sustainability issues as sustainability becomes more integrated within the strategies and operations of employers. In a survey of more than 1,300 business professionals conducted by the National Environmental Education Foundation, 65 percent of respondents identified environmental and sustainability knowledge as valuable, especially in new hires.

The 18-credit minor will offer courses in all of the university’s schools and colleges.  The program will not be housed in one particular school but rather overseen by the Office of the Provost to ensure it is truly interdisciplinary.  All GW undergraduate students will be eligible for the minor, regardless of what school they’re in or their major.  The minor can supplement any major at GW by helping students develop an understanding about the sustainability of society and the environment. We believe any student could benefit from the minor because students will learn how to think in a systemic way and appreciate interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving when examining sustainability issues. Sustainability isn’t a subject but a way of thinking about the complex interactions our decisions create for society and the environment.

The undergraduate minor in sustainability allows students to explore the challenges of sustainability and how it may be used to develop solutions to pressing issues at the local, regional and global scale. Students are required to take at least three credits in three separate tracks. The environmental and earth systems track focuses on science and engineering, including courses on climate, energy, water and ecology. The society and sustainability track focuses on human well-being and society and includes courses in public health, food, social equity, urban studies, international development and economics. The policy organization and leadership track features policy, governance and leadership and includes courses such as methods, communication, policy, law, business and organizational sciences. All of the courses that are eligible to be counted for the minor will be designated with a green leaf in the registration and course bulletins. The green leaf designation signifies that the course addresses issues around social, economic and/or environmental sustainability.

More than 20 faculty from across the university collaborated on the curriculum design.  Their creative input and enthusiasm led to several innovations in the minor. One innovation includes a newly designed Introduction to Sustainability course (Sustainability 1001), which will be team-taught by faculty representing different schools.  A second innovation is that the minor requires students to take a minimum of 6 credits outside their home school, encouraging students to gain insight from different disciplines.  Finally, the minor concludes with an innovative experiential learning component.  Students are challenged to take what they have learned in the classrooms and explore how sustainability is being implemented and practiced by non-profit organizations, businesses, or federal agencies.  Students can select a directed research project, internship or community service to fulfill this experiential learning project.

The launch of the minor builds upon the university’s goal to become a model for urban sustainability. In 2009, GW unveiled its Climate Action Plan with goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and reach carbon neutrality by 2040. In 2010, the university released its GWater Plan to reduce its direct expenditures on bottled water by 50 percent by 2016. And this spring, GW announced plans to enhance ecosystems.  In the past year, GW’s sustainability efforts have increased most notably with the addition of two new LEED Gold certified buildings (Lafayette Hall and Smith Center.  On George Washington’s campuses, three residence halls are outfitted with solar thermal panels that heat water for residents. Green roofs top four buildings, and a green plaza includes a state-of-the-art rainwater reclamation system. GW GroW gardens maintained by students provide fresh food to underserved Washingtonians. We are home to four LEED Gold buildings, including three residence halls and our athletic center.

GW  hopes to model for universities and other institutions that it is possible to be a healthy part of local and global ecosystems. GW is committed to being a leader in sustainability.  This is an exciting time for the university, and the minor will continue to propel us forward.

For more information about the undergraduate minor in sustainability, click here or contact sustaingw@gwu.edu .

Article written by Lisa Benton-Short, associate professor of geography and director of academic programs in sustainability.

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