On Campus

The new liberal education: sustainability

Dalhousie gets international recognition for new sustainability program

When Dr. Deborah Buszard asked a classics professor whether his department had any interest in contributing to planning a new sustainability program, she wasn’t expecting much. Buszard, a plant biologist who researches the use of plants in built environments, had been tasked with contacting every program at Dalhousie University to solicit feedback on the university’s plans to develop an ambitious interdisciplinary sustainability college. So she was delighted when the classics professor responded excitedly, “Oh yes! You can’t understand sustainability without reading Oedipus!”

The classics professor’s suggestion that Oedipus—the story of a mythical Greek king who killed his father and married his mother—is an essential text for anyone trying to understand human behavior was exactly the sort of thing Buszard was after. Recognizing that sustainability issues now touch virtually every subject—be it business, engineering, science, the arts, health, you name it—Dalhousie set the goal of creating a program in which any student from any faculty could pursue a double major in sustainability, a first in Canada. This past fall, only a couple of years later, the program welcomed its first students, and has already gained international recognition by being short-listed for a 2009 World Innovation Summit for Education Award, awarded at the WISE conference in Doha, Qatar in November.

Buszard sees the Environment, Sustainability and Society undergraduate program as the next step in modern liberal education. The accepted view of a liberal education is that students should have a broad education when they graduate from university, having studied English, science, math and so on in addition to their main focus. Buszard says that considering today’s complex problems, sustainability should be added to the list of subjects every student should study. “Whatever you are doing in your career, if you are in a leader position, you need to have this understanding,” she says. “We can’t afford to graduate students without that.”

This is the thinking that is behind’s Dalhousie’s goal of providing sustainability education to every undergraduate student. The program, which can be combined with any other major, brings students from departments from theatre to business to chemistry into the same classroom to puzzle together over complex problems such as water security, climate change or increasing urbanization.

The idea was originally conceived when Buszard’s colleagues realized that there were nearly 150 professors at Dalhousie involved in research on sustainability, in subjects as varied as medicine, international policy, ocean management and law. But these researchers were typically isolated within their departments, without the place to engage with other scholars with similar interests. How could these experts be brought together in a meaningful way?

The result is a college that provides a physical and intellectual place for the exchange of this knowledge. The cornerstone of the college is the undergraduate program itself, in which students study complex sustainability problems in the context of their differing majors. The first year focuses on history of sustainability taught by three professors—a historian, an architect and a scientist—that covers topics such as the development of the wheat economy in Canada and the use of whales as a resource. By the third year, students take their knowledge outside of the classroom to apply to real problems as part of the Campus as a Living Laboratory course in which they identify sustainability issues at Dalhousie and try to develop and implement solutions. In the final year, groups of students team up with community partners such as government and NGOs to tackle community-based challenges.

The intention of the program is to give students an understanding of complex sustainability issues outside of the lens of only one subject of study. The interdisciplinary approach distinguishes the program from environmental science. “We didn’t want to create another silo of experts,” Buszard explains. “We don’t want to produce people who are, say, an economist and only thinks of an issue in terms of economics.”

Buszard says that the program is a first for Canada, and she knows of only one similar program in the States. And students seem to be responding positively. Although the school hoped to enroll 150 students in its first year, 300 signed up.