Sustainability is:
a balance in environmental, social, and economic consideration of all components of the world's living and non-living systems. To fit into this balance, humanity must achieve resilience, continued learning, and consciousness of our relationship with the Earth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Education: Science, Sustainability, & Synergy

                During my time in the CELL Iceland program, I have been exposed to a number of tactics for environmental protection and sustainability that are socially-based, politically-based, and even ideologically-based.  This exposure has broadened my perspective on how to address global climate change and made me realize that a multifaceted solution is the best solution.  However, I still maintain that expanding and improving science education is one of the most important ways to countenance what is likely inevitable ecological disaster.

                Education in the STEM fields is not simply about learning facts and memorizing formulae.  My most significant learning from my engineering education has been critical thinking: how to methodically approach a problem, how to break it into manageable pieces, and perhaps most importantly, the necessity of holding oneself accountable.  If all students understood that they were responsible for how our society, our environment, and our economy functioned, perhaps the problems we face today could be avoided for future generations... not because we need more advanced technology to solve the world’s problems, but because we need more individuals who can think reasonably, who will come to conclusions based on their own logic and not based upon partisanship or what someone else tells them.

                The experience that most incited my passion and enthusiasm here was meeting Kristín Vala, the Dean of Engineering and Natural Sciences at the University of Iceland.  I always considered myself a strong supporter of education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but hearing Kristín speak about the immense power of education, and the specific ways in which education should change to address sustainability, awoke in me an intense desire to be part of this solution.

                Kristín outlined three manners of education incorporating sustainability:

Education about Sustainability
Kristín explained this system as multidisciplinary, but disjointed.  Courses provide key knowledge, such as awareness about global environmental and social problems.  Key skills include impact assessment methods, environmental law, environmental management, while key competencies are awareness of problems and concern for the future.  However, there is little to tie these components together and form a cohesive education.  While more and more universities are adding sustainability to their curriculum, most are still at this more elementary stage.

Education for Sustainability
This curriculum is interdisciplinary, but still isolated to within an institution.  Work is done on projects to analyze problems and design solutions that balance economic, social, and environmental considerations.  The key knowledge taught is how to address the specific problem and field of study, with the key skills being problem analysis, assessment, and development of integrated solutions.  Key competencies are collaboration, project management, and reflection on one’s own learning.

Education as Sustainability
Finally, Kristín presented this system as the most integrated, beneficial way to address sustainability in education.  Here, the education is trans-disciplinary and actively involves the stakeholders.  Students question, contextualize, and negotiate sustainability by interacting with other communities.  The key knowledge developed is an understanding of the complexity and context-dependency of sustainability.  Key skills are critical thinking, citizenship, intercultural communication, argumentation, dialogue, and networking.  The key competencies in this system are holistic; the focus is upon developing the capacity to transfer learned abilities to other projects.
                This idea of approaching sustainability education as an integrated process, and not as simply a thin layer to be added to the surface of every curriculum, was fascinating to me.  The disconnected state of many engineering and science courses of study could be ameliorated by regarding these curricula as “education as sustainability.”  For example, I took a course in Renewable Energy Systems my sophomore year in which homework assignments were to design PV arrays or micro hydro power systems for an imaginary client with often arbitrary needs.  What if, instead of attempting to learn skills without experiencing that give-and-take of problem solving for a specific use, we had actually met a local farmer trying to install a wind turbine on his or her farm, heard the challenges he or she faced trying to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, and received feedback from him or her on our final recommendations?  This would be a more comprehensive, and ultimately beneficial, system of engineering education.  Albeit clichéd, the concept of “synergy” in education strikes me: instead of simply taking classes in different subjects, there should be increased emphasis on pulling these ideas together, to take the disjointed parts and make something more powerful as a whole.

                Aside from a more integrated, application-based engineering curriculum, a greater emphasis on science for all students is necessary.  Not everyone has the desire to become a scientist or engineer, and we are need individuals to fill every niche in our communities; however, this should not exempt a segment of society from learning the problem-solving capabilities developed through science, technology, engineering, and math.  My grandfather, a professor of physics at the University of Rochester, has been one of the greatest inspirations to me as I pursue a career in academia.  Aside from sharing his knowledge and wisdom with future generations of physicists, he also taught a course he called “Physics for Poets.”  The aim was to make physics accessible to anyone who walked in to the classroom.  Although my grandpa passed away long before I decided I wanted to become a professor, even long before I decided to pursue engineering or math or science, the knowledge that he was able to live a fulfilling life and productive research career while having such a broad impact on science education reinforces my desire to do the same.

                It may sound strange, but I believe the most significant thing I have gained here is Sólheimar is simply a deeper understanding of learning.  Coming from an institution with 14,000 undergraduates and an engineering curriculum that treated everyone as if they were the same, I believed that education was simply one-size-fits-all; while the system worked for me, I did not stop to consider that it did not work for everyone.  Here in Iceland, interacting with such a diverse group of students with such diverse learning styles, I have discovered the vast array of previously untouched opportunities available in the educational process.  I leave Sólheimar eager to learn more.

                                                                                                                    Tracy Mandel

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