Sustainability is increasingly present in everyday life: what is the best way to include it in university courses to properly prepare students for the real world.
By Laura Zizka
It’s curious to write an article on two seemingly diametrically opposed educational programs. On the one hand, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM); on the other hand, hospitality. At first glance, there seems to be nothing in common with these studies. STEM students are scientists, engineers, techies, and mathematicians who base their decisions on facts and rigor; hospitality students ooze ‘people’ skills and find practical solutions to immediate glitches. Yet both groups focus on solving real world problems from a predominantly environmental perspective with a smidgeon of economic and social thrown in. And what connects these two groups together? Sustainability education and the challenges that come with it.
While educational experts agree that it is the responsibility of higher education, regardless of the area of expertise, to provide knowledgeable graduates for the global workplace, there is less agreement on its role as a provider of ethically responsible graduates who consider their own needs and expectations, as well as those of their future employers, and the greater society as a whole. Both areas of study show a gap between mandatory courses to enhance content knowledge and interdisciplinary, often optional, courses to address multi-faceted problems such as sustainability.
There are three levels to consider when discussing sustainability and education
- On an institutional level, more institutions in both branches are including sustainability in their mission/vision statements, as part of the corporate strategy, or by creating offices or departments that focus on sustainability.
- On an instrumental level, new courses have been created as stand-alone electives or existing courses have been revised to include sustainability elements. Some institutions offer full degree programs that focus on sustainability; others offer ‘green’ certificates.
- On an individual level, sustainable changes have been made both on/off campus through student or faculty-led initiatives. Many schools have been ‘greened’ or are ‘greening’ as this article is being written.
Nonetheless, stakeholders in these institutions face the same challenges and pressures when trying to implement (more) sustainability into existing programs. Changing strategy is slow, particularly in education. Asking institutional stakeholders to change the mission/vision to one embracing sustainability could face resistance. As the adage goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Another challenge lies in the classroom itself. Many faculty members feel overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed in imparting content knowledge to ensure student employability. Where would sustainability fit into an already packed curriculum? Many students who seem keen on studying sustainability can’t see the relationship between learning about the concepts and the real world they will soon be entering. When they can’t see the point, students are quick to criticize, become resentful of the process, and are less likely to replicate sustainable actions in the future.
The greatest challenge is one of resources: time, money, training, motivation, energy, political, social, legal constraints… and the list goes on. To effectively implement sustainability practices and initiatives on/off campus, institutions must be prepared to open the purse strings.
So how could STEM and hospitality institutions address these challenges? With facts, rigor, people skills, and practicality, of course. Here are suggestions on how to implement sustainability on the three levels mentioned earlier:
- Decide that change is necessary. Invite the stakeholders (especially the most resistant) and have the difficult discussions. Put dialogue first. Gather the evidence. Check the methodology. Charm the participants. Develop an action plan. It may not be broken, but when is the last time you checked it for cracks?
- Clean house, or, in this case, the classroom. Hypothesize why the curriculum is so packed. Examine the relationship between what is being taught and what should be learned. Listen to what faculty and students are saying. Create a new course together.
- Spend a little (or a lot). Conduct a study on what other institutions are doing. Quantify the exact costs (and benefits) for implementing sustainability initiatives/actions. Identify the ‘change agents’ or ‘change leaders’ within the establishment who could lead the pack. Start slowly and build on the momentum.
Finally, the most important recommendation I am positing is the following: instead of seeing all of the differences between STEM and hospitality education, why not see the opportunities? A lit bit of scientific rigor with a hint of soft skills would not go amiss. After all, if STEM and hospitality students are going to share the same world, why not co-create innovative solutions… together?