Sustainability needs to be integral to education

Schools need to make sustainability education a key part of their curriculum if we want to build an environmentally aware workforce

From TOTO Energy

There are many different definitions of sustainability, which can focus on a wide range of aspects including politics, economics and philosophy, as well as other social sciences. But, the Brundtland Report seems to outline it well, ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability skills and environmental awareness is a big priority in many jobs at a graduate level. Companies are now embracing environmental, social and government strategies and programmes, and are working to integrate these strategies throughout their businesses. They need new employees to help contribute and shape this new focus on sustainability, and this ultimately starts with education.

Sustainability education is about empowering and bringing together people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future

Sustainability education is about empowering and bringing together people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. It has also grown over time to recognise the need to engage with many different interests in society in order to address environmental issues. Sustainability can be split into three main areas; social, environmental and economic. It is a very broad topic, and educational establishments need to give students and graduates insights into most aspects of the human world, from business and technology to environment and the social sciences.

There are specialist sustainability programs popping up in colleges and universities around the world. More and more students and graduates are looking for careers where they’ll make an impact, do something for the environment or be involved in corporate social responsibility.

It is now vital that companies and communities implement authentic and innovative sustainability practices. There are many issues that we are facing, that affect our capacity to live and learn, such as:

  • Catastrophic climate change
  • Deforestation and vanishing fish stock
  • Overpopulation, malnutrition, premature death
  • Polluted air and water
  • Diminishing natural resources

It’s not easy to address these complex issues. We need to educate and grow the next generation of sociologists and social workers to address social issues; economists, accountants and financial advisors to address economic problems; and environmentalists, environment managers and policy auditors to work on our environmental future… As well as many more professions in different sectors.

How do we prioritise and shape educating the future of the world?

In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development met to discuss and develop a set of goals to work towards. From this, they created the Millennium Development Goals, which claimed success in reducing global poverty while acknowledging there was still much more to do. Eventually, they came up with a list of 17 items which included amongst other aims:

  • The end of poverty and hunger
  • Better standards of education and healthcare
  • Gender equality
  • Sustainable economic growth while promoting jobs and stronger economies

It is encouraging that there is an increasing number of colleges and universities now including elements of sustainability as part of their campus management programs and curriculum. The main issue that we’re currently facing is a poor integration of sustainability with other subjects and across departments. For example, in universities, sustainability curriculums are tacked onto programs or courses as an elective, and therefore are not compulsory. This is most common with business studies or economics courses. Sustainability has as much to do with business management, as does economics and accounting. Training students on how to approach complex problems, how to employ systems thinking and how to engage younger workers who care deeply about sustainability is vital.

Schools and universities don’t have to create lessons dedicated solely to the environment and energy to teach them about these issues. This knowledge can be diffused in core subjects like maths, science and even literacy lessons.

Engaging students

It’s important for teachers and establishments to be aware of the danger of student overload. The constant stream of urgent and global environmental crises has the potential to overwhelm some students. Teaching students about the many challenges to environmental sustainability in a way that will engage them without overwhelming them, is a difficult, but not impossible, task. Start educating children at a young age. One way is to discuss their definitions of happiness and quality of life, and whether they are correlated with high levels of consumption and resource use. Peer engagement and support is also hugely important. Engaging students in group discussions or projects in which they have the opportunity to discuss and support one another can reinforce the message.

Students can learn more about environmental issues by wrestling with empirical data for themselves – Why not let them collect this data themselves on a field trip?

Students can learn more about environmental issues by wrestling with empirical data for themselves, rather than receiving pre-digested data and analysis from lectures, the media or other secondary sources. Why not let them collect this data themselves on a field trip? Field trips bring people together in ways that go beyond traditional classroom experiences.

It is not yet clear what our sustainable future will look like, but with emerging technologies and the improvement of awareness in the world’s current workforce, it’s likely that there will continue be change. One thing is for sure, we all need to make sustainability accessible to all types of students, and this is a key issue that many schools and institutions need to address.

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