Educate to Create Change

This is the final blog exploring the “E” in the CLIMATE model. “E” represents education and its ability to build capacity to address important issues such as climate change and other environmental and social challenges. In this blog, I focus on educating future organizational leaders in the university setting. The target markets are individuals entering the workforce who share a common focus on creating a more sustainable and just world. While this model works in other settings, my primary focus is on the difference young leaders can make in the workplace.

First, I start with an overarching model that seeks to guide educational efforts within graduate programs or organizations looking to guide their sustainability education. This model creates a cascading progression of analysis levels from global trends to the individual level:

  1. Natural environment/ global trends
  2. Common human challenges (survival, shelter, meaning, how to interact, causality, and place)
  3. Address these challenges and form assumptions (national culture, values and norms, principles by which we live, Democratic capitalism, National competitiveness)
  4. Institutional arrangements that implement these solutions and support political and economic systems; Government; Legal Systems
  5. Role of organizations and impacts on organizations and our civil society
  6. Impacts on you.

Sustainability scholars are united by intellectual questions at each of these levels. For example, for the natural environment/ global trends level, the following question is asked: What are the essential human and biotic global trends that impact our organizations and us? For institutional arrangements questions such as “What institutional arrangements support sustainable outcomes? What political-economic institutions and policies lead to and which destroy a humane, sustainable and just society? What legal arrangements ensure a sustainable future?” arise.

Educational programs can also adhere to a set of assumptions that guide curriculum material:

  • Sustainability could be approached in two major ways: (1) the sustainability field of study is defined as satisfying current needs without sacrificing future well-being through the balanced pursuit of ecological health and resiliency and social well-being; (2) as focusing on how we use Earth’s resources. Sustainability is also a field that examines the history of human behavior and existing unsustainable practices and develops the vision and the means to change those practices.
  • We are in the Anthropocene era, existing in a world that we have indelibly and irreversibly changed on practical timescales.
  • We have a shared responsibility for the present and future well-being of humans and the larger living world. We practice the precautionary principle where we make investments in pollution abatement, conservation, and restoration undertaken as an insurance premium associated with preventing irreversible, uncertain, and potentially catastrophic long-term harm.
  • Equity is vital to sustainability discussions, as is interaction that builds community around sustainable goals;
  • Use science-based education that draws from core liberal arts traditions and principles to determine ways to address human needs and goals. Decide on course content based on the best available science in each discipline;
  • Consider technological solutions to some intractable, natural, and environmental issues, recognizing that technological solutions must go hand in hand with social solutions and respect for the natural world that does not produce infinite resources;
  • The natural world has value independent of its utility to people. Nature supports all forms of life and provides services to humanity that should be valued and preserved. While we draw from natural resources to support our existence and our growth, we need to value and preserve our natural world, learning to respect our interdependence with our planet and recognizing our stewardship roles.

Each graduate program is different, but each program can emphasize common student learning outcomes in pedagogical practices. These learning outcomes describe what students will do with their education. When a student graduates from the program, they should be able to do the following:

  • Develop, manage, and lead the implementation of visions for sustainable futures, including creative design, modeling and imaginative and forward thinking to define what should exist to create sustainable outcomes (normative ideas); accomplished at various levels from individual to global;
  • Incorporate an understanding of the functioning of the Earth system and ecosystems into decisions and evaluation of public policy;
  • Calculate and evaluate resource stocks and flows; gain an ability to process data and critically review scientific journals;
  • Use skills in written and oral formats and gain the ability to explain future possibilities.

These learning outcomes are accomplished by using certain techniques, such as (in order of priority):

  • Use a trans-disciplinary approach to the curriculum. This is essential as the very essence of sustainability problems span multiple domains of inquiry. Trans-disciplinary pedagogy arises when participating experts interact in an open discussion and debate, giving equal weight to each perspective and relating them to each other. Trans-disciplinary approaches address the complexity of problems and incorporate a variety of perceptions. One could us various techniques including (1) team teaching of the core courses by faculty members from various disciplines; (2) incorporating at least one panel to illustrate a concept or idea from opposing perspectives; and (3) including course materials reflecting opposing views.
  • Place-based learning allows students the opportunity to recognize the unique features associated with how place, community, and local culture foster concrete and customizable sustainable practices. Place-based learning also allows students to compare and contrast current global issues with regional and local issues.
  • Encourage integrative, action learning, and reflective student experiences to help achieve the program’s learning outcomes. Universities use curriculum and pedagogy as the primary modes through which knowledge and skills are conveyed to students. These these approaches should be extended to include co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences.
  • Use personal reflection exercises so participants can obtain a personal understanding of the material and can become empowered to act upon their accrued knowledge. Reflections include personal observations linked to research and experiences. Throughout the process, students practice making decisions that are contextual, technically informed, and reflective of values-based decisions. 
  • Consider a “T” model for breadth and depth. This “T” model means that core courses examine the general scope of sustainability whereas the electives and projects allow opportunities to develop depth of knowledge. Every core course covers the core language used in a discipline, the challenges that humanity is facing, and the suggested solutions to these challenges. Depth of knowledge is strengthened by stackable certifications in areas where students want to develop specific skills.
  • Emphasize natural capital by identifying its use and valuation. It is also important to recognize other forms of capital such as manufactured, financial, intellectual, human, and social.

In summary, I presented the overarching model for educational programs, sample core questions to address in courses, assumptions underlying how the program is designed, core learning outcomes, and some important pedagogical techniques.

Note: This document is adapted from the Wake Forest University Sustainability Graduate Programs’ vision statement for which I was the founding director. If you want the literature behind these statements please contact me at


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