It seems that the term sustainable is everywhere these days. We hear the term applied in its various adjectival and adverbial forms to such apparently disparate entities as food and agriculture, transportation, energy, clothing, buildings and all things associated with the building industry, recreation and tourism, communities, education in its many forms and contexts, economic systems, and of course the natural environment. The idea of sustainability has become so ubiquitous lately that it may seem that sustainable is on the verge of becoming the new natural. However, for the three faculty members featured in this year's Showcase the commitment to teaching for a sustainable future is neither a new idea nor a meaningless buzzword. For Julie Lockhart, Grace Wang and Arunas Oslapas, the work of creating a sustainable and just world is a way of living that defines their teaching and their scholarship.
The enduring idea underlying creation of a sustainable future is intergenerational responsibility — making sure the current generation can meet its needs while at the same time ensuring that future generations can meet their needs. Concerns for sustainability emerged in the 1970s as the linkages among the environment and socio-economic development became more clearly understood. As early as 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. had warned of the dangers of a "thing oriented society" ruled by the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development issued a report entitled Our Common Future that framed economic development, social justice, and environmental impacts as a single interconnected system. In this report, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report after Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Commission's chairwoman, social justice was viewed as a key component of sustainability and outcomes such as solidarity, equity, and poverty reduction were as equal in importance with scientific approaches to environmental protection. Today the term sustainability refers to three overlapping and interdependent spheres related to environmental, economic, and societal variables. The real work of sustainability takes place in the area where the three spheres intersect. Sustainable practices are understood to benefit economic, social, and environmental systems equally.
At Western Washington University, the goal of creating a sustainable future has become more central to what we all do. Thanks to the forward thinking and hard work of our students, Western has become a national leader in the use of green energy. The Student Recreation Center recently was certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as a building that exemplifies green design. President Karen Morse was one of the early adopters in joining the Presidents Campus Climate Challenge, a national movement of college and university presidents seeking to model sustainable practices by achieving climate neutral campuses. Each year, the Center for Service Learning connects students and faculty with a wide variety of projects that address community health and well-being, while our new Office of Sustainability is helping the entire campus find new ways to "walk the talk" of sustainable practices.
A thought often attributed to Albert Einstein holds that we cannot solve a problem using the same kind of thinking that created it. Today, we face challenges that literally are planetary in magnitude and complexity and it is becoming increasingly clear that our thinking is the problem. Not only do we need to change the kind of thinking we're doing, we need to change the educational systems we're using to create that thinking.
Research conducted in the past few decades has led to new understandings of the fundamentals of human learning. One of the most direct results of this research is that the notion of what it means to learn has changed considerably. The goal in education today is to promote understanding and use of information. Learning with understanding involves being able to perform in a variety of ways and contexts with a topic. Learners must routinely be expected to explain, provide evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, create analogies and represent information in novel ways. The three professors featured in this year's Innovative Teaching Showcase exemplify what it means to teach for understanding. They are leading the way to show us how to build an educational system that will create the deep understanding and new thinking required for a truly sustainable future.
Dr. Wang uses a variety of state-of-the-art pedagogies in her classes focusing on consumerism, data analysis, and environmental policy. Her instructional strategies model the very thinking she wants her students to learn: generalizing from cases, analysis of complex data, and thoughtful participation in the public policy process. In Dr. Wang's classes the how is as important as the what of sustainability.
Professor Lockhart teaches her students to go far beyond the simple to fully embrace the true complexity of environmentally-responsible accounting practices. Her students examine real-world cases and think critically about the real implications of "triple bottom line" thinking. Her students learn first-hand the challenge of balancing growing populations and global economic models with the need for a viable and healthy environment.
Each year, Professor Oslapas and his students raise recycling to an art form—that pays. His ReMade assignment requires students to develop a commercially-viable product from discarded materials. His students see first-hand the costs associated with our one-use consumer culture and at the same time learn to apply technical design and materials concepts and skills. However, the design and build part of the assignment is only the beginning. Professor Oslapas' students also have to build a plan to market their ReMade creations. This additional criterion adds a real-world dimension to the assignment that forces students to think about strategies for "going to scale" with sustainability.
We hope you'll enjoy reading about the work of these three remarkable professors who are leading the way towards a truly sustainable future.↑ Go to top