Northwest Earth Institute’s Discussion Guides Enhance Sustainability Education at University of Michigan
In the class, “Sustainability & the Campus,” my students focus on organizational change, environmental management and the substantial institutional changes that are required for a university to lead the way toward a more sustainable future. While focusing their out-of-class work on projects with the operational side of the University of Michigan, students channel their intellectual energy into assessing and critiquing the role of institutions of higher education in the sustainability transformation. In teaching this class for more than a decade at three different institutions, I have experimented with many readings or texts but nothing seemed to align with the unique, hands-on, and intellectually challenging approach of the course. Two years ago, I started utilizing the Northwest Earth Institute’s (NWEI) Choices for Sustainable Living discussion guide and the resulting conversations and analysis have been remarkable.
A Portland, Oregon based non-profit, NWEI has developed discussion-based course books focused on a variety of sustainability themes (see www.nwei.org/higher_education). Their model is based on behavioral research and the work of numerous scholars and popular authors, ranging from major figures such as Benyus, Ehrlich, Friedman, Kingsolver, Pollan and Senge, to lesser-known writers with compelling stories. I use the Choices for Sustainable Living course book to introduce the concept and application of sustainability. It provides the backbone for sustainable thinking through bite-sized readings from leading thinkers and practitioners. The content and format directly hits the key challenges we face in a world of rapidly declining environmental, social and economic capital. More importantly, the text provides reasons for hope, optimism and action.
Students are not only tasked with completing the readings, but also coming to class prepared to enter into dialogue and discussion with one another since each discussion guide includes relevant questions for reflection. The questions included are aimed not only at fostering an intellectual understanding of the author’s perspectives, but also at encouraging inquiry and reflection on the part of each student, particularly around how the issues of sustainability interface with daily campus life and personal decision-making processes. If the aim of sustainability education is only for students to grasp concepts, perhaps we as higher education institutions are succeeding. If our aim is to engender a deeper, systemic understanding of sustainability where concepts are not only grasped intellectually, but also translated into action and a more responsible type of citizenship, we must find resources that match up to this challenge.
The success of NWEI’s materials and model has been apparent based on my students’ reactions. One former student approached me to say that she explored the additional resources in the book and subsequently found that it formed the basis of conversations with those around her. Another student said that the perspective in the materials fundamentally altered her mindset about sustainability and how she goes about making personal consumption decisions. Yet another remembered nearly all of the readings in detail over a year later.
NWEI discussion guides have value well beyond the traditional classroom setting. In fact, due in part to student demand and interest, I am using the World of Health discussion guide to spark monthly discussions among a group of “Sustainability Scholars”, who are upper-level undergraduates pursuing an 11-credit honors certificate in sustainability. The intellectual richness that the guide brings, combined with the unbridled enthusiasm and energy of these rising sustainability leaders, are creating high-level discussion and engagement. My students are excited about this optional, informal gathering of peers. The primary problem has been allowing adequate time for full participation, but I have no doubt that these students are continuing their engagement with the materials on their own – probably in their residence halls or in late night conversations with friends. To me that is the true sign of success of NWEI’s unique approach to the most critical topic of our time.