For University, sustainability is a mindset, not a major

Some of GW’s initiatives to become a more sustainable university have been easy to see in recent years – the opening of the University’s first LEED-certified residence hall, new recycling bins and the creation of the Office of Sustainability.

But even after the presidential task force on sustainability noted in its final report that “GW’s greatest opportunity for impact lies in the classroom,” the University has not created a sustainability major or minor.

Schools across the country, including Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins University, Drew University, and Ithaca College, have adopted a sustainability major or minor. For now, GW offers a “green” course list that undergraduate students can browse online. The classes can be used to fulfill general curriculum or major requirements, or just to learn more about environmental issues.

GW’s closest equivalent to a sustainability program is in the geography department, which has an environmental studies major. Most of these courses within the major focus on subjects that relate to the environment, such as geography, biology and anthropology.

The environmental studies major is “interdisciplinary,” said Megan Chapple-Brown, director of the Office of Sustainability. A potential sustainability major would also be interdisciplinary, since environmental issues tend to show up in different social science disciplines.

Graduate students at GW who are working toward a master’s in geography can specialize in urban sustainability and sustainable urban planning if they choose to do so, Chapple-Brown said.

Professor David Rain, an academic adviser and assistant professor in the geography department, said that while sustainability is not currently a major at GW, there is a focus on it within the environmental studies program and in other programs as well.

“In the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, a graduate student is able to get a master’s degree in environmental policy, which involves the issue of sustainability,” he noted.

Rain said it was obvious that sustainability is a “hot topic” around GW.

“It’s important to take inventory of students’ interest in a new major along with what courses, faculty and staff are available to implement it,” Rain said. “I think it is a big strength that the University is committed to urban environmental issues and urban sustainability and that even if there’s no major or new label or cover put on a course, that won’t change in the future.”

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