Five Invaluable Elements for Developing an Effective Sustainability Course

green pencilsBy Alan Scheller-Wolf, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University

As I prepare to teach Sustainable Operations to our MBAs for the sixth time next term, I realize that many of the principles that have allowed my course to flourish at the Tepper School parallel ideals facilitating sustainability as a whole. So, while I recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability, or even MBA sustainability education, I do hope that some of the lessons I have learned here may be of help to other students and professors interested in developing or promoting sustainability courses.

Possibly the single most important influence on the Tepper School’s move toward sustainability education has been grassroots support. Five years ago, a group of MBA students, many affiliated with our school’s chapter of Net Impact, approached me about offering a course centered on sustainability. This was part of a larger effort on their part to get the school to recognize a concentration in this discipline. The students and I were able to identify several topics that were of interest and relevance to MBAs, which formed the core of my first Sustainable Operations course.  Concurrently, I worked with our administration to define a concentration in Ethics and Social Responsibility, assembling a subset of courses which would satisfy this concentration’s requirements. Recognition of the concentration was an important goal for the students – it serves as tangible proof to them that Tepper views the topic as important. It also serves as a signal for recruiters that students have gained expertise in this domain. With the concentration approved, and a body of students eager to take my new class, we were able to launch both the class and concentration successfully.

The second element crucial to the success of my class is that it is taught in a fashion consistent with our culture. The Tepper School takes pride in its analytical focus – we help students develop skills enabling them to (i) identify important problems; (ii) deconstruct them to their key components; and (iii) derive conclusions or solutions based on data-driven analysis. For sustainability education to be successful here, it had to be taught with such a focus. Thus, in class we begin by debating the larger issues around sustainability – for example, the costs and benefits of operating a business, or a business school, with a focus on sustainability – critically evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. I have been fortunate to have students who are comfortable vigorously arguing the different sides of these issues, which enables me to step back and let the class explore. Also, given the Tepper School’s analytical focus, I am able to teach advanced methodological techniques to my students – for example, use of EIO-LCA modeling and Markov chains – as they apply to cases and problem sets. Students thus develop the ability to make the high-level arguments for (and against) sustainability and the analytical techniques to back up their positions.

The third principle that has been instrumental to the success of my class is that it is firmly rooted in practice. While we explore and debate general ethical principles around sustainability, while learning advanced analytical tools, my ever-present goal is to help students become better analysts and leaders in practice. To reinforce this focus, each term I have two or three outside speakers from leading companies deliver guest lectures explaining how sustainability plays a role in their day-to-day decision making as well as their long-term strategies. This proves invaluable to the students, and also exposes companies to students who are learning the skills necessary to be the next generation of sustainability leaders. Finally, each term, teams of students define and evaluate sustainability projects and present them to the class. This gives students the freedom to explore sustainability issues on their own, teaches them to drill down to the key issues which can make an initiative successful or not and forces them to defend their proposals and conclusions in front of the entire class.

The next element that has greatly benefited my class is broad involvement, the inclusion of students in other disciplines from across the Carnegie Mellon campus. In addition to a cohort of MBA students, my class typically contains several Master’s students from Public Policy and Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as the occasional student from Chemical Engineering or even Architecture. Having such a diverse student body enriches our discussions and analysis, as students learn from each other. In fact, I often have students who have more expertise in a particular sustainability domain than I do, which, while humbling, is incredibly beneficial. (For example, I have had students who were themselves LEED consultants, and/or who do research in Life Cycle Assessment.) Finally, this broad involvement drives home the fact that the issues we are discussing have far-reaching relevance – across campus, across academic disciplines and, ultimately, across society.

The final principle that has proved invaluable to my course is being forward looking and adaptable. At the end of each term, I submit a survey to the students (often included as a question on the final exam) asking them which topics and speakers they found most useful and interesting, and which they found least so. While this does not dictate how the course may change on the next iteration, it does inform my decisions. I was very surprised recently when students overwhelmingly expressed that Markov chains were one of their favorite topics, and suggested deemphasizing LEED, as it is covered sufficiently in other courses. This sort of recalibration, based on concrete feedback, helps keep the content relevant and fresh in the rapidly changing environment.

There are, of course, many other elements that go into conducting a successful course, such as good teaching materials, a supportive administration and high expectations. I am fortunate to have these as well. But the five qualities I listed above: grassroots support, cultural consistency, a focus on practice, broad involvement, and adaptability, have proven to be invaluable in the successful development of my class and for sustainability education in general at the Tepper School. I hope my experiences may be helpful to others entering this fascinating educational space.

[image credit: Didi: Flickr cc]

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