Thursday, July 23, 2009

Environment and Sustainability Studies at MIT

MIT does not have an undergraduate or a graduate major or minor in environment and sustainability. The 75 members of MIT's Faculty Environmental Network for Sustainability (FENS) are trying to do something about this. You can see our preliminary proposals for an Undergraduate Minor in Environment and Sustainability and a Graduate Certificate of Advanced Interdisciplinary Study in Environment and Sustainability at or In the fall of 2009, these proposals will be thoroughly vetted by groups across the campus. By the spring (2010) we hope to have a curriculum package to put before the MIT faculty for a vote.

I've been on the MIT faculty for forty years, and in all that time I've never seen anything quite like this. A substantial group of faculty members from all fields and disciplines is taking the initiative. I'm not talking about gathering names for petitions to complain about something or taking a stand on a political question. Rather, the FENS involves a large group of faculty from all parts of the campus working together to reshape MIT's teaching efforts in what is now referred to on other campuses as Sustainability Science. Curriculum reform efforts at MIT usually start with one member of the administration or a single department seeking to expand into a new area or offer a new degree. But the Environment and Sustainability proposals advanced by the FENS have been prepared jointly by faculty from all five schools at MIT. They represent a "bottom-up" faculty-led rather than a "top down" administration-inspired initiative (although the MIT administration has been quite supportive).

There are five issues that have made it difficult to reach agreement: (1) Is there really anything to learn about environment and sustainability that isn't already covered effectively by the 25 or so Departments on the MIT campus? (2) Doesn't MIT's new Energy Initiative (MITEI) represent a sufficient commitment to environment and sustainability? (3) How can we teach what needs to be taught when the Institute is facing severe budget constraints? (4) Is MIT currently admitting students who care enough about this field to want to take on even more than their already overwhelming degree program requirements? (5) What's the best way to administer a cross-campus, interdisciplinary degree program (when we don't have any in place at the moment)?

In 2008, undergraduates and graduate students organized Sustainability@MIT ( I'm not sure of the exact number of students in the group (since quite a few graduated in June and incoming undergraduates and graduates have not yet had a chance to sign up), but I'd guess at least 10% of MIT's 4,200 undergraduates and 10% of its 6,200 graduates students are involved. Sustainability@MIT completed several surveys last spring. Based on their results as well as input from faculty teaching "environmental" subjects spread out across the Institute, I think we can answer questions #1 and #4 above. Student interest is strong and classes currently offered are insufficient.

MIT's Energy Initiative worked hard to win support for an undergraduate Energy Minor last year. (They have not yet been able to suggest anything at the graduate level). The Energy Minor is linked to MIT's massive build up of funded energy research on the campus. The Minor will expand course offerings in interesting ways; however, given the way it is structured, it will be quite possible for a student to fulfill the requirements while focusing almost exclusively on new ways of burning fossil fuels. That's not satisfactory from the standpoint of most of the faculty in the FENS. While MIT students are always pre-occupied with technological innovation and new ways of "doing science," there appears to be a growing commitment among students in all areas of study to help find less wasteful and ecologically damaging ways of building and managing cities, new approaches to providing clean water, adequate food, new materials, renewable energy, better information management and strategies for encouraging economic development without undermining nature's services or destroying social capital. So, while there might be some ways in which the Energy Minor will generate new undergraduate courses that an Environment and Sustainability Minor might want to take, the undergraduate minor and the graduate certificate in Environment and Sustainability will focus on a lot more than energy technology.

We've looked closely at current curriculum offerings at MIT. There is a lot we
can build on. But, what's missing are interdisciplinary or interdepartmental pathways that will encourage students to ask questions that no traditional department is likely to emphasize and teach skills and methods that require different ways of framing problems. There are analytical methods (like life-cycle analysis, environmental impact assessment, carbon footprint analysis, and cost-benefit analysis that takes the value of nature's services into account) that most MIT graduates are not learning. The historical and institutional obstacles to sustainable development are not covered in most existing degree programs. There are areas like terrestrial ecology, public health, and environment law and environmental politics that are seriously under-staffed. And, finally, there are areas like conservation biology that are covered expertly by our Woods Hole colleagues, but that most MIT students never know about. We also need to expand the number of "practica" that will allow students to learn about the real-life dynamics of sustainable development by getting involved in client-driven projects in the public sector.

We have put together undergraduate and graduate proposals that assume only four new undergraduate and four new graduate subjects need to be developed. (We would like to see these offered as two-course sequences). That implies two new faculty hires. Everything else can be done by re-clustering and re-organizing existing subjects to make it easy for students to move across departmental boundaries. We hope that faculty teaching many of the existing subjects we have re-grouped into problem-focused sub-specialties will re-orient these classes so that they better serve broader audiences. We also expect MIT to ramp up externally-funded research in the Environment and Sustainability field in the same way its has grown Energy research over the past three years. We need to provide funded research assistantships for graduates and undergraduates. In addition, MIT's recent efforts to "Green the Campus" offer numerous laboratory-like opportunities for students to do research close to home.

In the final analysis, we do not see the need for MIT to devote very much "new" money to launching the undergraduate and graduate teaching programs we will propose in the coming year. We do, however, think that a new administrative arrangement will be necessary. In the end, unfortunately, this may be the most significant stumbling block we will have to overcome. Interdisciplinary, problem-focused teaching will not fit very well within traditional departmental and school boundaries, yet this is the way that MIT has always organized its teaching activities. We will call for the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Environment and Sustainability made up of one senior faculty member and one junior faculty member appointed by each of the five Deans. It would be best if these were faculty who teach in the Environment and Sustainability field. These ten faculty would then select their own chair and deputy chair. This Committee would oversee curriculum development, monitor teaching performance, allocate graduate teaching assistantships for cross-cutting courses, advocate for faculty hiring to fill gaps in the curriculum, and organize a range of campus-wide activities (i.e. speakers, job fairs, career counseling, etc.) in conjunction with Sustainability@MIT. This campus-wide Committee, rather than a single Department or School, would administer the undergraduate minor and the graduate Certificate Program.

There are, of course, numerous other models for how to organize degree programs and interdisciplinary minors in the Environment and Sustainability field. Schools all over the world, including MIT's sister institutions (of science and technology) in Japan and Europe, have already created similar programs. But, each context is different and the institutional drivers are different. So, we are not suggesting that any other university ought to do things in the same way that makes the most sense for MIT, or that MIT ought to copy anyone else. We are keeping an eye on what other schools are doing, but mostly so we know what others are doing. We look forward to sharing ideas and experiences with colleagues around the world. For the next year, though, our goal will be to build a consensus within MIT on how to address growing student and faculty interest in Environment and Sustainability Studies.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

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