Theory in, theory out: NCSE and the ESS curriculum

  • James D. ProctorEmail author


The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) has played a prominent role performing empirical research on the environmental studies and sciences (ESS) curriculum over the last 10 years and in significant ways has helped define the “new normal” of the ESS curriculum—for instance, in foregrounding sustainability as its core theme. Greater attention to the conceptual assumptions and implications of this effort—i.e., how theory informs and follows from NCSE’s empirical research—may help us better interrogate this “new normal” as we collectively chart the ESS curriculum of the future. In this paper, I examine one key recent NCSE report, titled “Interdisciplinary Environmental and Sustainability Education on the Nation’s Campuses 2012: Curriculum Design.” Its theoretical dimensions are summarized via three key steps: (a) the ideal ESS curriculum builds on diverse forms of knowledge, (b) this diverse knowledge can be organized into major curricular models, and (c) sustainability integrates these curricular models. The final step, presented without empirical justification, appears to derive both from earlier NCSE-related publications and theoretical assumptions from the first two steps. I conclude by rephrasing these three steps as questions for continued discussion and debate. Ultimately, theory and empirical research both matter in discussions over the ESS curriculum, which would ideally be informed but not constrained by NCSE’s contributions.


Theory ESS curriculum NCSE Sustainability 



I am grateful for support to Lewis & Clark College’s Environmental Studies Program via The Andrew Mellon Foundation, promoting development of innovative undergraduate curricular approaches. Careful feedback from two anonymous reviewers provided helpful input toward manuscript improvement. I acknowledge the support of the National Council for Science and the Environment in allowing publication of a figure from their 2013 report and to Shirley Vincent and Peter Saundry for their perceptive comments on an earlier draft. Finally, I am grateful to Jennifer Bernstein and Rich Wallace for their input and to the input provided at the June 2014 AESS meeting in New York City, where a draft of this paper was presented.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Studies ProgramLewis & Clark CollegePortlandUSA

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