At universities, interdisciplinary work is key to a more sustainable future

At universities, interdisciplinary work is key to a more sustainable future

(Photoillustration by Sejal Govindarao. Image courtesy Canva; screenshot of The Earth Institute at Columbia University)

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Nordic nations are known for their sustainability-first approaches to every sector of life. Now, universities in the United States are taking a similar approach when integrating sustainability into academia.

“When we work with the Swedish companies they often drive with this idea that in order for a new product to be viable, it has to be sustainable, because that’s what the people want,” said Anna Helm, associate teaching professor of international business at the George Washington University School of Business. 

“Here, on the other hand, when we try to bring those products to the U.S., we have to be very careful to make sure that there is a business case, that the product is viable financially,” she said.

Helm, who also directs the Center for International Business Education & Research, GW-CIBER, and GW School of Engineering professor Saniya LeBlanc recently received a Duke Energy Innovation Grant, which they used to develop a course on sustainable energy. 

The course, currently being taught for the first time, features real-client consulting projects in the area of sustainable energy. Students work across their disciplines of business and engineering to assist Swedish sustainable energy startups with the development of U.S. market entry plans. Under normal circumstances, the students would have spent their spring break in Sweden, but instead virtual site visits were arranged with Swedish companies and other organizations.

Helm said that bringing this interdisciplinary work to an international stage gives students the opportunity to learn about Sweden’s success, which can be attributed to a productive collaboration among academia, industry, and the public sector. And though some things aren’t directly transferable, Helm said, “looking for inspiration, ideas, and systems that have worked elsewhere is really critical.”

Rather than keeping sustainability on the back burner of their respective degree programs, schools are taking this “Nordic” approach by placing sustainability at the forefront of conversations, ranging from business to fashion, from public health to law, stressing how environmental issues demand interdisciplinary integration.

Dr. Lisa Allyn Dale, lecturer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, shared how the Institute’s structure is specifically conducive to interdisciplinary learning, being a program as opposed to a department.

The fact that the Institute is not housed in a department, Dale said, “gives us the space to sort of spread our wings a little and pull from departments all over campus and be …sort of agile and responsive to changes, and able to make changes on the fly.”

Dale said that universities adopt this in various forms, providing students with a foundation for knowledge of sustainability beyond a mere disciplinary requirement.

Thomas Dean, professor of entrepreneurship and sustainable enterprise in the College of Business and School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University, said that along with faculty and student support, new programs need the support of donors.

“I’d encourage some of the donors out there who have the kind of funds that can support innovative programs to get on board, because that can really bring barriers down and make things happen,” Dean said.

Universities all over the country are integrating sustainability into their niche fields of study. GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health has been very engaged with sustainability issues by bringing them into conversations of how the climate is impacting workers’ health, according to Milken Dean Dr. Lynn Goldman. 

Goldman also said that public health academia and research must work in conjunction with one another. 

“We want to bring our research into the world to make a difference, to make people healthier,” she said. “And it’s through working with people who are policy experts, legal experts, and other experts that we can do that.”

Public health and policy can work together to combat not only sustainability issues, but issues of environmental justice, according to GW’s Dean of the School of Law, Dayna Matthew. 

During GW’s recent Sustainability Summit Dean Panel, Matthew said that she is hoping to build an equity institute at the law school that will “begin to place law at the center of conversations about environmental justice and about health justice.” She said they may be able to build an environmental justice clinic to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and move Title VI cases that address discrimination in overly burdened communities. 

Matthew said, “In this way we might also be able to build a medical-legal partnership that would address the processes under Title VI that are very often disregarded. When we fix disparities without specifically aiming at racial inequity, we actually exacerbate that inequity.”

Higher education in its nature is extractive, according to Matthew, as it goes into communities to take polls, surveys, and data.

“We march back into our ivy towers and we produce papers and have conferences where we talk to one another but we have not left a tangible value, a tangible benefit in the communities of which we are apart,” she said. “I think if that changes we will change inequality around the country in all of the major research university venues in the country.” 

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