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Beyond interdisciplinary: how sustainability creates opportunities for pan-university efforts

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In many universities, sustainability is gaining currency in the classroom, in research, and in practice. This paper will examine how George Washington University has crafted sustainability education as a pan-university program. We briefly discuss the origins GW’s sustainability efforts, then explain how the vision of a pan-university approach was developed. GW’s Academic Program in Sustainability does not reside in any one school—instead it sits under the Office of the Provost. As such, Sustainability belongs to all schools. We next discuss the development of a pan-university sustainability minor, open to all students, and featuring courses and faculty from all schools at the university. As universities undertake efforts to integrate sustainability into the curriculum, an important element is team-teaching. Because sustainability is inherently trans-disciplinary, courses that are team-taught generate multiple perspectives on the same issues, leading to dynamic and engaging discussions with faculty and students. We examine the success of the Introduction to Sustainability course that uses five faculty from five different schools at GW to provide students the exposure to how different disciplines problem solve around sustainability, and how a team approach lends itself well to the learning outcomes of the course. There is also tremendous value in student experiential learning around sustainability. GW requires Sustainability minors to complete an internship or service project around sustainability, and we discuss how this is structured. We also highlight how the process of creating a pan-university program in sustainability provided an opportunity for faculty collaboration, creativity, and “thinking outside the box” approaches. Finally, by positioning sustainability as pan-university, we have met with challenges. We address the challenges and obstacles to creating a genuinely pan-university effort that seeks to escape the traditional “silos” of schools and departments and to move beyond interdisciplinarity as well.

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  1. The terms interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary connotes research and teaching that cross many disciplinary boundaries. Although each of these terms is distinct, they are often confused with each other because they all relate to moving beyond disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinarity combines two or more academic disciplines in research projects or teaching and attempts to create something new by crossing boundaries. We use the term interdisciplinary in this paper because it is the most widely used when discussing sustainability (see for example, Buszard and Kolb 2011; Parker 2010).

  2. The 14 schools include Arizona State, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Michigan, University Minnesota, Princeton, Stanford, University of Wisconsin, and Yale.

  3. GW’s nine core values include learning, building community, embracing diversity, respect, service, teamwork, and sustainability. We think it notable that while many of these core values are found at most universities, sustainability is not.


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Correspondence to Lisa Benton-Short.

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The process of creating the Sustainability program involved numerous internal reports, documents, and memos. Many were intended for an internal audience. In addition, some of these documents are now out of date and we do not have them posted on the GW website. If you would like to learn more about the process and development of the Sustainability program and the Sustainability minor, please contact the authors.

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Benton-Short, L., Merrigan, K.A. Beyond interdisciplinary: how sustainability creates opportunities for pan-university efforts. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 387–398 (2016).

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