In this opening session, panelists brought curricular, co-curricular, research, and operations perspectives on the greening of Penn State provided an overview of current sustainability efforts, including recent accomplishments, challenges, and opportunities. This was an update of a report made to the Board of Trustees in May 2009.
Dr. Rowe responded by providing a national context for transforming education and operations practices at American colleges and universities. She engaged panelists and audience members in a dialogue about how Penn State can learn from and serve as a model for other institutions.
Campus communities must find ways to meet current environmental sustainability needs, and do so without damaging the potential for future generations to meet theirs. Partnering with a variety of university units, students have been using Penn State as a living laboratory as well as place to study, research, and apply concepts of sustainability. This session asked how we have "greened" our campus communities, and how can we encourage more collaboration among our communities.
How are sustainability concepts being included in the classroom? What teaching methods and strategies do faculty employ? How have faculty taken advantage of opportunities to partner with operating units in order to link the university's academic mission with facets of campus operations? Faculty in all fields of study may want to consider what it would mean to teach sustainability principles and practices. This dialogue asked the question “How can Penn State provide learning outcomes that will help students to become environmentally literate citizens?”
Higher education typically provides narrowing versus cumulative learning experiences, producing graduates who think within their subject disciplines. For example, subject-based higher education may not introduce ethical dilemmas even though ethical awareness of choices and decisions form a significant part of our lives. In the classroom, and in their future professions, students may find it difficult to work effectively in interdisciplinary teams and to understand the knowledge production or the cultures of other disciplines. This session asked how multi-disciplinary collaboration can be encouraged, and how those who embrace that collaboration would be rewarded.
Existing research initiatives help Penn State learn how to integrate sustainability concepts into course offerings, and to teach these concepts on the basis of a broad range of methods, media and reliable data. This session examined research projects that have tackled the diverse and complex issues involving sustainability that can serve as models of best practices.
The topics of the environment and sustainability clearly resonate with students. Among other institutional organizations, Penn Staters have created the Student Sustainability Coalition, Eco-Action, and Dickinson's Environmental Law Review. Courses that offer hands-on multi-disciplinary learning opportunities (e.g. service learning) create leadership skills among students. This session asked how students can continue to achieve dynamic outcomes for a sustainable world while they prepare to be active leaders, workers, and citizens.
If a goal of the institution is a comprehensive sustainability education model that accommodates its size, stature and structure, how might that goal become reality? One strategy is to provide contextual, relevant and interdisciplinary student-centered learning such as service and project-oriented learning. Another strategy is to offer the opportunity for faculty to collaborate across the university. What are best classroom practices and strategies that will help accomplish sustainability goals?
What kinds of resources are available within the institution in order to move from a climate of concerned awareness to a climate of critical action? What teaching materials can be made available that develop capabilities and attributes for students who can then contribute to managing and researching issues of sustainability? What incentives can be provided to encourage faculty to consider interdisciplinary teaching and research? This session asked what support and reward structures are imperative in order to move from urgency to agency.
Notions of multi-disciplinary and responsible citizenship raise essential questions about the nature and purpose of higher education. On what basis are we preparing our graduates to face the 21st century with skills and abilities that can make a difference? What knowledge is needed to address issues of sustainability? Is the implementation of an institution-wide curriculum on sustainability possible? This session asked what future research needs and opportunities are out there for students, faculty and the university as a whole.
The second day was devoted to follow-up action planning. The intent of these sessions was to gather the collective wisdom of conference participants and to bring this dialogue forward in order to guide current practice and future policy.
What and where are “green jobs” in Pennsylvania? What educational experiences address the urgency of sustainability practices and provide opportunities for students to advance the ethic and science of sustainability? What avenues are currently available for taking action at local, state and federal levels, and what avenues need to be created?
What disciplines are not at the table, and how can sustainability be made relevant to them? How can we create an interdisciplinary, multi-campus community dedicated to the teaching of sustainability? How can sustainability pedagogy be integrated into the curriculum through Penn State operations and public scholarship? What models pioneered at other institutions would work best in our culture and on our scale?
One of the greatest near term challenges is to develop the capability to effectively address the systemic, interdisciplinary nature of sustainability education. What can we learn from other interdisciplinary research and education centers and programs at Penn State, and at comparable institutions, that could be applied to sustainability education? What new models are needed?
A systems perspective on sustainable education recognizes that education is a system nested in the social system which is in turn nested in the ecosystem. A systems view leads to the question: “How can education and society change together in a mutually affirming way, towards more sustainable patterns for both?”
In this closing session, facilitated by Dr. Rowe, students, faculty and administrators presented their best ideas for making sustainability one of the defining features of a Penn State education. Recommendations were proposed and prioritized, and attendees committed to a plan of action.