Creating a Sustainability Curriculum

at the

University of Massachusetts Amherst


A concept paper and proposal developed by students, faculty and local community members participating in the Special Topics class PLSOIL 297S “Developing a Sustainability Curriculum” for the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Sustainability Committee, and submitted to this committee as well as the UMass Amherst Faculty Senate ad hoc Committee on Sustainability - Academics and Curriculum Subcommittee


Spring, 2002


Participants in this Project


Deborah Becker

Robert Bernatzky

Seanna Berry

Rema Boscov

Maria Carlson

Clare Casey

Roz Cook

Helena Farrell

Monique Gauthier

John M. Gerber

Daniel Greenberg

Hwei-Ling Greeney

Stephen Herbert

David Hess

Michael Keeney

Sarah Kelley

Josh Kimball

Maggie Luther

Teddy Malley

Meg Morgan

Vanessa Paulman

Emily Quirk

Ben Shields


While this report represents a collaborative effort of students, faculty and local community members, inquires or comments may be referred to Dr. John M.Gerber, Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, 210 French Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003; (413) 545-5301 or


Creating a Sustainability Curriculum

at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spring 2002


This is a concept paper and proposal developed by students, faculty and local community members participating in the Special Topics class PLSOIL 297S “Developing a Sustainability Curriculum”.  Drs. Robert Bernatzky and John M. Gerber organized this class at the request of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Sustainability Committee.  Their charge was to solicit guidance and input from students who are currently pursuing an education focused on sustainability.  This concept paper and proposal is being submitted to that departmental committee for further consideration and action.  It is also being submitted to the Faculty Senate ad hoc Committee on Sustainability - Academics and Curriculum Subcommittee, at the request of members of the class.  We hope both committees find our work useful in their further deliberations. 


Text Box: Introduction

The next generation of students graduating from American public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial and technological growth that are simultaneously destroying or depleting much of nature and endangering human and non-human species, while offering the highest material standard of living and rate of consumption ever known.  These modern systems of industrial and technological development must be re-imagined and re-created in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources, use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, or cause harm to people or the natural world, now or in the future. 


As we begin this task, we must clarify core community values so that science and technology may be guided to serve the needs of present and future generations.  This work will require skills, knowledge and wisdom not currently central to the academic enterprise.  Education for sustainability will be needed to help redesign food and farming, energy production and consumption, and waste handling and reuse systems.  At least one generation will be needed to build learning communities and social structures that support the changes that must occur in our daily lives as we learn to live more sustainably on the planet. 


Today’s graduates of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and other science based disciplines are generally prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels.  Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and agricultural systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  Studies of social systems must complement studies of biophysical systems at these higher levels of complexity.  A new set of academic and experiential education is required for the students of sustainability.   Therefore, we are proposing a new Sustainability major be developed by the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in cooperation with other appropriate academic units. 

This proposed curriculum development project must go beyond offering new skills, knowledge and wisdom to individuals.  It must also nurture the emergence of new societal structures (including university learning systems) that support the evolution of sustainable ways of living and learning.  A new curriculum for sustainability must be part of a total systems change at the university as described in “Education for Sustainability: The University as a Model of Sustainability” by Anthony Cortese (see Appendix I).  


While this concept paper and proposal was developed at the invitation of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, we believe it will be useful in other academic departments as they also consider curricular changes in support of the quest for long-term sustainability.  It is our collective hope that a group of academic departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst develop unique but interrelated majors to provide students with the opportunity to study sustainability.  We can imagine these majors to be based in disciplines such as agriculture, engineering, art, economics, health, and more. 


Specifically we see at least 3 reasons for creating a new major at this time:


·         Sustainability addresses the university mission of serving the public good in ways that are explicitly dedicated to economic viability, environmental integrity and social equity.  The sustainability of the university itself will depend on this generation’s foresight and ability to adapt to a changing world by creating relevant future-focused educational programs.  Sustainability is not only the responsibility of the public university, it may be its best chance to demonstrate continued social relevancy at a time of increasing public scrutiny. 


·         A Sustainability major will complement and build upon current the strengths of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.  Studies in Plant and Soil Sciences are largely focused on environmental quality and economic viability.  The proposed new Sustainability major will complement these objectives by incorporating social equity as an additional primary educational focus, and integrating all three objectives through holistic studies.  This new major will require partnerships with faculty and professionals outside of the Department and University, and therefore encourage others to focus their own efforts on long-term sustainability as well.  


·         There is significant student interest in learning about sustainable solutions to the many economic, biophysical, and social challenges of our time.  This demand for sustainability studies extends to a desire to find or create meaningful work that addresses these challenges.  Employment opportunities in agriculture and natural resource management today require attention to environment and social issues.  We believe this demand will continue to grow, thereby affording employment opportunities to the graduates of this program. 


These 3 reasons are more fully described in the next section.



Text Box: Rationale for a Sustainable Living Curriculum at this Time

1.  Sustainability education addresses the public university mission in ways that are explicitly focused on economic viability, environmental integrity and social equity.   Few would argue with the idea that public universities have a responsibility to serve the public good, however there is not widespread understanding of the concept of “the public.”   Some would argue for example, that the primary public role of universities is to generate skilled workers for the corporations and businesses of the nation.  In this case, businesses that provide employment to graduating seniors would be seen as “the public.”  We believe this viewpoint is incomplete, as employability is but one of the important outcomes of a university education.  Also, potential employers are not necessarily representatives of the public good, but rather of their own special interests.  We propose a Sustainability major would not only provide employment and serve the labor demands of businesses and corporations, but would also address other aspects of public good. 


A more complete understanding of ‘public good’ would include attention to common human interests rather than private benefits.  Among those common interests we think important are: affordable, nutritionally adequate food; adequate and affordable clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment; a means to provide for one’s livelihood, personal growth and community health; accessible health care; and accessible educational opportunities.  We believe that employability of graduating students is a necessarily but not sufficient means serving the public good.  We believe the multiple sustainability objectives of economic vitality, environmental integrity and social equity may be best addressed by focusing on university education that clearly addresses the basic human needs of all people, now and into the future. 


 We are hopeful the University of Massachusetts Amherst will accept the challenge of the (former) President’s Council on Sustainable Development Public Linkage, Dialogue and Education Task Force which called for “…changes in the formal education system to help all students, educators, and education administrators learn about the environment, the economy, and social equity as they relate to all academic disciplines and to their daily lives.”  (For the full report of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development see;   This government task force made a case for educational reform that would strengthen sustainability education by integration of traditionally disparate discipline-bound teaching through interdisciplinary approaches and systems (holistic) thinking.  Further, they proposed that sustainability education should be encouraged through experiential, hands-on learning.  Many universities have accepted this challenge and created new programs, courses, and pedagogies to meet the societal need for sustainability education while at the same time fulfilling their fundamental mission of serving the public good.   We are hopeful that UMass Amherst will join this progressive group of universities.


2.  A major in sustainability will complement and build upon the current strengths of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.   The PSS Department description states “Plant and Soil Sciences, through the combined study of plants, soils, and the environment prepares students for an active role promoting the quality of life through environmentally conscious and socially responsible management of plant and soil resources.”   We agree with this statement and would add that the quest for sustainability must include not only management of plant and soil resources, but also must include management of personal decision-making processes while building equitable social relationships.  Sustainable development should not be limited to the development of biophysical resources, but must include development of social and personal resources and capacities as well.


The PSS Departmental description further states that “students in Plant and Soil Sciences learn effective techniques for land and crop management, growing and breeding plants, reducing pesticide use, and using plants and soil microorganisms to remove environmental contaminants from ecosystems.”  Again we agree, and would like to add that sustainability requires all of this plus an understanding of this work from a complex systems (or holistic) perspective.  It is not enough to manage plants, animals, soils, pests, water, and minerals.  They must be understood as part of a complex agricultural ecosystem in which farmers, suppliers, shippers, food handlers, retailers, consumers, public agencies, businesses and other socially created institutions play a role. 


The Departmental description states “a degree in Plant and Soil Sciences is for students interested in such issues as:

Producing locally grown food and feed crops

Reducing land and water pollution

Enhancing the beauty of homes, towns, cities, and businesses

Expanding recreational enjoyment of parks, athletic fields, and other

green areas

Evaluating the role of organic matter in soil sustainability

Developing new crops and cropping systems

Increasing the world food supply, safety, and quality.”


Once again we agree, but would add that sustainability education may include all of these interests as well as:

Building the capacity people living in community to make their own decisions related to land, food and farming, and to affect positive change in their lives while not jeopardizing the lives of future generations

Allowing individuals to explore continuous personal growth and service to community and cosmos through their food and farming choices

Eliminating the use of natural resources at rates in excess of regeneration or replacement

Preventing the accumulation human-made and natural substances to toxic levels

Understanding how government policies and economic structures affect the choice of land management and other agricultural practices

Understanding how the market economy and international trade policies affect food distribution, hunger, and the choice of technologies

Understanding the dynamics of population growth, food production, food security and the use of technologies


Finally, the PSS departmental description states, “…the undergraduate curriculum in Plant and Soil Sciences is unique, developed so that students can tailor course work to best reflect individual academic interest and career goals”.  We agree that sustainability education includes a focus on academic interest and career goals.  However in addition, sustainability education prepares a student both for “making a living” as well as for living in a more sustainable way.  Sustainability education goes beyond preparation for a career, and prepares humans to live on the planet in a way that doesn’t jeopardize opportunities for others alive today or for future generations. 


3. Perhaps the most important reason to create a new sustainability curriculum is that there is significant student demand.   Interest in learning and practicing more sustainable options to the many economic, biophysical and social challenges of our time has grown.  Employment opportunities continue to increase in this area as well (see the section “Work for Sustainability” below).  A group of University of Massachusetts Amherst undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and friends from the surrounding community have suggested that such a new curriculum is needed.  Among the many reasons and hopes expressed by this group were:


·         “Sustainability is about social justice and ecology and we have a responsibility to be conscious of the privilege we have of being here at UMass.  Working for sustainability allows me to express my responsibility.”


·         “As a citizen of the world, I am responsible for my actions and what I leave.  If I put positive energy into the earth, good things will happen.”


·         “As Americans we consume more than our fair share and the movement toward sustainability is necessary.”


·         “The PSS Department can help people learn to create community.”


·         “As a living creature on the earth, we are all evolving.  We need to actively direct what we become.  We need mental, physical, and spiritual balance to relieve the suffering in the world.  We need new sustainable behaviors to do this.”


·         “I want to work in the area of sustainability as a professional.  I want to be able to make a livelihood while doing so.”


·         “We need to learn how to create non-profits and communities that provide opportunities for sustainability work.”



·         “We need to redirect our goals as members of a global community with dire understanding of the consequence of our unsustainable ways of living.”


·         “College students drive social change.  Education is needed to support the movement toward sustainability.  We don’t have to contribute to the destruction of the planet, but we need to learn how to act differently.”


·         “We need to be part of the creation of alternatives to the current culture.”


·         “We need to change the values that are degrading the planet.” 


·         “Sustainability is so vast; it opens doors to many opportunities for work.  Education for sustainability will help us change our understanding of the world.”


·         “As a species we are evolving toward a sustainable world.  Education for Sustainability will provide an opportunity for students to work for change.”


·         “We need to think critically about the current system.  We need a clear message about what sustainability means to us, and how current institutions, organizations and policies are or are not contributing toward sustainability.”


·         “Sustainability gives us the chance to address some of the environmental problems in the world.”


·         “Sustainability allows us to be conscious of our responsibility to the future.”


·         “Sustainability gives us a chance to find solutions through both innovation and remembering.  We need to wake up from the amnesia that allows us to forget our need for community and connection with the earth.”


·         “Sustainability is the right, radical solution to our problems.  It ties together the disciplines and the people who need to work together for holistic solutions.”


·         “We hold a desire to create a better world for others and ourselves.  We need to move toward a new way of sustaining the planet and ourselves.  We need to find ways science can contribute in a positive way to a sustainable future.” 


For these reasons and more, students at UMass have decided to create their own programs of study in sustainability.  The current options for departmental majors at UMass Amherst do not provide an adequate opportunity to study sustainability in its full and broadest sense.  One BDIC major noted “I transferred to UMass last fall after completing my Associates Degree.  UMass-Amherst attracted me because of the Sustainable Agriculture program in the Plant and Soil Sciences Department.  Having known for several years what career path I want to pursue, I thought that this degree would best prepare me.  What I have instead discovered is that while I would graduate with a strong knowledge of current, large-scale agricultural trends and large-scale corporate organizations, a large gap would be left in my education.  The current Sustainable Agriculture program is more about production agriculture than sustainability.  By designing an individual concentration through BDIC, my hope is to “fill in” this gap.”  This message was heard from BDIC students who switched from other academic departments as well.  Students who wish to prepare for a lifetime of work toward sustainability have opted for the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program.  We believe this expression of demand, coupled with the increasing number of employment opportunities is further reason for creation of a new Sustainability major at this time. 


The next section describes our understanding of the scope of education for sustainability.



Text Box: The Scope of Sustainability Education

While the human quest for sustainability must involve all citizens, organizations, institutions, and academic disciplines, the focus of this concept paper and proposal to the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences is the land, food and farming sector of the world.  The need for sustainability education is great in this critical sector, but extends beyond.  We are hopeful other academic departments at UMass will read this report and develop their own proposals for new sustainability curricula as well.  As Alan AtKisson wrote in A Quest for Sustainability (see Appendix II),  “People dedicated to promoting sustainability ideas and innovations are needed in every field, in ever-increasing numbers.”    Paraphrasing AtKission, we believe the world needs:


·         Artists, to help us feel the gravity of our situation, to help us envision a more beautiful and sustainable way of life, and to inspire us to strive for better things.


·         Scientists and engineers, to find solutions, new “green” practices and products, and breakthrough ideas that can rapidly transform our unsustainable way of life.


·         Designers, to redesign virtually every human construction and system, and to fuse beauty and functionality in a transformed and sustainable world.


·         Business people, to re-imagine and redirect the flows of money and investment and talent in ways that can recreate the world while enhancing global prosperity.


·         Activists, to call attention to those issues about which societies at large are in denial or unable to act on because of systemic or controlling forces.


·         Professionals, such as those in healthcare, the law, or international development, to change the standards of practice in their profession to first “do no harm”, and to lend their considerable weight to a global movement.


·         Average citizens, to re-imagine themselves as global citizens, to       enthusiastically support change efforts, and to dare to reach for their own aspirations for a better world.


·         Politicians, to motivate us with a true spirit of democracy, to frame new policies that encourage transformation, and to remove bureaucratic obstacles to innovation and change.


·         Educators, to prepare current and future generations for a great responsibility: directing human development toward sustainability.


While the education of all these people is well beyond the capacity of any one academic discipline, we believe the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences can make a significant contribution to education for sustainability related to land, food and farming systems.        We believe that by working in partnership across many departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a comprehensive and holistic curriculum may be created to serve the needs of undergraduate students interested in learning to live more sustainably on the earth.  We are hopeful that other departments will join Plant and Soil Sciences to create majors in the area of sustainability as well.  The next two sections present a model for sustainability and a template for curricula development that we hope will be useful toward this end. 


Text Box: A Model for Sustainability Education


A widely accepted conceptual model presents sustainability as a quest toward three interrelated objectives: 1) environmental integrity; 2) economic vitality; and 3) social equity.  We believe people should be encouraged to begin thinking about sustainability from any of these three perspectives.  We should engage people “where they are at” and incorporate the thinking of many viewpoints as we “move toward the center” of the sustainability triangle. 





As students of sustainability, we recognize that simply “adding up” multiple perspectives will not move us toward sustainability.  We believe that at the center of the model is a fourth perspective that is needed to help integrate sometimes-conflicting perspectives, which we call holism.  For purposes of building an academic curriculum, we find it useful to use a revised sustainability model, including four perspectives:


The sustainable economic view – sustainability is the efficient use of human and natural resources within the global marketplace, with minimum harm to the natural environment, local communities, and people.  This view currently dominates university education for sustainability, yet is incomplete.


The sustainable biophysical view – sustainability is a way of manipulating the world to achieve both permanence and productivity.  (See Appendix III, Educating for the Environment, on how this view would change university education).


The sustainable social view – sustainability is a way of life that supports all humans and viable communities today and to the 7th generation.  (See Appendix IV, Equity and the Environment for more).


The sustainable holistic view – sustainability is an integrating paradigm for understanding complex human and non-human systems.  It includes and integrates all the other views, providing meaning and spirit to the work.  (See Appendix V, Sustainability Science; and Appendix VI, The Quiet Dawn).



Text Box: A Model for a Sustainability Curriculum


This four-part model of may be used for the development of a sustainability curriculum based in any academic discipline.  Attention must be paid to all three corners of the triangle as well as the integrating process at the center that we called holistic studies.  A sustainability curriculum should include academic courses and/or educational experiences from all four sectors of the model. 





Since the concept of holistic studies is not familiar in some academic arenas today, further explanation may be useful.  According to an April 2001 article in Science (see Sustainability Science; Appendix V), the science community has generally ignored societal and political issues affecting the sustainable development.  This estrangement from so-called “non-scientific” issues has prevented the research and education establishment from making significant contributions to global sustainable development.  The authors of this article call for a new sustainability science that is different in “structure, methods and content” from the science of the past. 


Specifically the new sustainability science will need to approach problems from a holistic perspective that: 1) transcends spatial scales from economic globalization to local farming practices; 2) accounts for temporal inertia of global affects such as atmospheric ozone depletion and the movement of toxins; 3) deals with the functional complexity of interacting systems and subsystems; and 4) recognizes and honors a wide range of divergent opinion within the scientific community and between science and society.  Sustainability science calls for new integrative processes that bridge science and politics, nature and society, and developed and developing nations.  Finally, sustainability science will use participatory procedures to engage scientists, stakeholders, advocates, active citizens, and users of knowledge in the inquiry process.  We believe this perspective from the author’s of the article in Science is a call for systems thinking or holistic studies. 


We understand that this call for holistic studies will not be well understood by many in academia today as it represents a significant paradigm shift.  Systems thinker Ervin Lazlo describes the “macroshift” in human society taking place today as a transition from logos to holos, or from reductionist thinking to holistic, systemic thinking (see The Quiet Dawn; Appendix VI).  This shift does not represent the abandonment of rational, objective thought, but the evolution of human thought toward holism or systems thinking, which includes but is not limited to rational analysis.  The Plant and Soil Sciences Sustainability Curriculum Development class has described this shift as an evolution from logos to holos with a shift in the following attributes:




Reductionist thinking




‘Head’ oriented

Separate from nature



Holistic thinking




Whole being (head, heart, body, spirit)

Connected with nature/ecological


Systems oriented


Course work in holistic studies might include: leadership development, spirituality, holistic and integrative courses, systems thinking, community studies, and particularly experiential education.  At the heart of our proposal is a recommendation to require students have at least one semester of experiential education (described below). 

The next section describes the national movement toward sustainability education.


Text Box: Sustainability Studies: A Global Movement

Paul Hawken wrote in the January/February 2000 issue of Sierra Club Magazine: “There are in the United States today at least 30,000 nongovernmental organizations dealing with sustainability in the broad sense of the word.  In the world, there are approximately 100,000 such groups.  Numbers themselves, however, do not convey the power of this movement; what does are the underlying mental models and frameworks that inform it.  In the past, movements that became powerful (Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism) started with a set of ideas and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core model was changed, diluted, or revised.  The sustainability movement does not agree on everything, nor should it ever.  But, remarkably, it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth and how it functions, and about the necessity of fairness and equity for all people in partaking of the earth’s lifegiving systems. This shared understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts. And it is absolutely growing and spreading worldwide, with no exception.  No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, there is no orthodoxy.” 


This global movement is being nurtured within higher education by several national and international organizations.  The following section provides some background on a few of the organizations created to assist and encourage universities and colleges to incorporate sustainability into their operations and curriculum.   These organizations and others maintain web-based databases that describe the evolution of sustainability studies at universities throughout the world.  Among the leading organizations are:


The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) was created by a group of academic leaders.  Presidents and other administrative leaders from about 280 universities around the world have signed the Talloires Declaration in support of sustainability education and operations.  The mission of ULSF is to make sustainability a major focus of teaching, research, operations and outreach at colleges and universities worldwide.  ULSF pursues this mission through advocacy, education, research, assessment, membership support, and international partnerships to advance education for sustainability.  According to ULSF “…higher education is beginning to recognize the need to reflect the reality that humanity is affecting the environment in ways which are historically unprecedented and which are potentially devastating for both natural ecosystems and ourselves.  Since colleges and universities are an integral part of the global economy and since they prepare most of the professionals who develop, manage and teach in society's public, private and non-governmental institutions, they are uniquely positioned to influence the direction we choose to take as a society.  As major contributors to the values, health and well being of society, higher education has a fundamental responsibility to teach, train and do research for sustainability.”  The Talloires Declaration and more about ULSF can be found at:



·         Second Nature Inc. is another educational non-profit dedicated to accelerating a process of transformation in higher education.   While Second Nature will change in the near future due to budget constraints, for some time they have guided and nurtured higher educational institutions in their quest to make sustainability an integral part of the institution.  Second Nature Inc., states, “…we must reinvent the world socially, economically and environmentally.  A sustained, long-term effort to transform education at all levels is critical to the change in mindset necessary to achieve this vision.  Higher education has the power to lead in this endeavor by exercising its role in training future leaders, teachers and other professionals and in producing wisdom needed to face the challenges of an increasingly complex world.”  Second Nature has maintained an extensive database, with examples of sustainability programs, courses and curricula at:


For more than a decade, National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program has been helping transform the nation's college campuses into living models of an ecologically sustainable society, and training a new generation of environmental leaders.  They are at:


The International Institute for Sustainable Development provides tools for campus leaders and educators wanting to incorporate sustainability into campus operations as well as the curriculum.  They are at:


HENSE, the Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment, is a new North American network of individuals and organizations from academia, associations, government, non-profits, community interests and business who are dedicated to improving the quality of life for all through the realm of higher education.  They are at:


The International Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability (ISTS), which can be found at:, is an educational collaborative that seeks to enhance the contribution of knowledge to environmentally sustainable human development around the world.  The Initiative is based on an evolving vision of "science and technology for sustainability" which they describe as:

anchored in concerns for the human condition; (it’s engaged in the world)

essentially integrative; (it’s holistic)

regional and place-based; (It’s “local”) and,

fundamental in character; (it addresses the unity of nature and society)


These organizations represent mainstream attempts to incorporate sustainability into university culture, operations and curriculum.  We believe UMass Amherst should be part of this national movement, not only to serve students today and in the future, but for its own institutional health.  The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future wrote; “…We believe that the success of higher education in the twenty-first century will be judged by our ability to put forward a bold agenda that makes sustainability and the environment a cornerstone of academic practice.”

We must recognize that many courses at UMass already contribute to sustainability education.  Examples from the social, economic and biophysical worlds are:


Anthropology 208: Human Ecology - The study of human/environmental interactions.  Emphasis is on biological and cultural responses by contemporary human groups to pervasive environmental problems.


Economics 308: Political Economy of the Environment – Application of the theories of political economy to environmental problems and issues.  Topics include regulatory and market approaches to pollution and natural resource depletion; cost-benefit analysis and its economic and political foundations; and case studies of specific environmental problems such as acid rain, deforestation, and global warming. 


Plant & Soil Sciences 297A (soon to be 265): Sustainable Agriculture – Ethical, practical and scientific aspects of the quest for long-term agricultural sustainability.  Students learn about the economic, social and environmental impacts of food production systems and how personal choices, technology, and policy impact sustainability.


In addition to these few examples, we have identified courses that contribute to sustainability education in the following academic departments at UMass Amherst.


Afro-American Studies






Environmental Sciences



Legal Studies

Resource Economics

Political Science


Food Science



Natural Resources Mgt.



Many of these courses are listed below.  It is clear from our investigation that many UMass courses currently available contribute to education for sustainability.



Text Box: Work for Sustainability


We believe education for sustainability will help prepare students for both a sustainable life and a sustainable livelihood.  The type of work needed in the future is likely to require different skills, knowledge and wisdom than today.  As part of our study, we evaluated the following employment opportunities related to sustainable land, food and farming that were available over the past year:


Coordinator - New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, Dracut, MA

Education Coordinator – The Poughkeepsie Farm Project – Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Manager – Seattle Youth Garden Works, Seattle, WA

Horticulturist/Agronomist – Project Renewal, Chester, NY

Program Coordinator – UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Burlington, VT

Farm Manager - The Center for Urban Agriculture, Santa Barbara, CA

Farm Manager - The Accokeek Foundation, Maryland

Executive Director - Community Harvest, Washington, DC

Education Program Coordinator – Community Harvest (see above)

Manager of Research - The Rodale Institute, Kutztown, PA

Executive Director - Sustainable Food Center, Austin, Texas

Director for Evaluation and Research – The Food Trust, Philadelphia, PA

Northeast Field Assistant – Heifer International

Executive Director - Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Davis, CA

Therapeutic Garden Prog. Asst. – Community Environ. Council, Santa Barbara, CA

Assistant Professor for Tourism and Sustainable Communities, UVM, Burlington,VT

Research Specialist for Organic Economics – Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Connecticut Farmland Trust Coordinator – Hartford Food System, Hartford, CT

Program Director – Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Hatfield, MA

Farm Manager and Horticultural Therapist – Long Island Shelter, Boston, MA

Sustainable Ag Specialist - National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, MT

Project Assistant - Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems, E. Lansing, MI

Certification Program Administrator – NOFA-NY, Binghampton, NY

Regional Organizer - Northeast Sustainable Ag Working Group, Belchertown, MA

Assistant Professor of Extension and Bioethics – Iowa State University, Ames, IA

Urban Agricultural Coordinator - East New York Farms, Brooklyn, NY

Farm Manager - Holcomb Farm Community Supported Agriculture, W. Granby, CT

Community Outreach and Youth Director - Holcomb Farm CSA, W. Granby, CT

Agricultural Program Coordinator  - The Food Alliance, Portland, OR

Program Coordinator – Just Food CSA Project, NY, NY

Internship Coordinator & Farm Manager – Center for Environ. Farming Systems, NC State University, Raleigh, NC


These employment opportunities seem to cluster around four major categories of work:


·         Policy and Advocacy – this includes work for non-profit advocacy and educational organizations, government agencies, university research centers, and personal citizen involvement in political and community change efforts.


·         Community Engagement – this includes working directly with people and groups in community.  Examples are community gardens, anti-hunger coalitions, environmental protection efforts etc.


·         Educational  - this includes youth education, citizen education, non-profit educational organizations, media work, and formal teaching. 


·         Farm Manager – this includes knowledge of sustainable and organic plant and animal production systems.  We believe this need is not adequately served by the current Sustainable Agriculture track within the Plant and Soil Sciences major and should be re-examined considering our model for sustainable education (above). 

We believe a Sustainability major should provide adequate flexibility for students to create a course of study that would prepare them for any of these four areas.  At the same time, we believe that specializing too narrowly would be a mistake.  Sustainability education should prepare students for a lifetime of work by learning basic principles, integrating multiple disciplines, and learning how to learn.  Since most adults today change their work many times during a lifetime, sustainability education should prepare people for continued growth and learning rather than for entry positions in a chosen field.


Based on the evaluation of these employment opportunities and further discussion on the nature of sustainability work, we have generated a list of skills, knowledge and wisdom necessary for sustainability education.  The broad categories are listed along with examples for each category:


SKILLS (know how)

KNOWLEDGE (know what)

Wisdom (know why)



Machinery maintenance

Farming techniques

Computer skills

Historical and Philosophical Context

History of agriculture

Philosophy of Sustainable


History of cultures

Personal Sustainability



Personal Health & Nutrition

Holistic decision-making

Adult Education



Strategic planning

Organizational skills



Supervisory Skills

Community Organizing


Grant management

Program evaluation

Agricultural and Ecological

Plant & Soil Science

Food production


Livestock management

Community Food Systems

Holistic Management

Food Quality

Cultural Awareness


Cross cultural awareness

Navigation of Local Politics

How to Build a Movement

Social Marketing

Process of Social Change

Social dynamics


Writing proposals

Press release writing

Newsletter preparation

Public speaking


Multiple languages



Social and Economic

Public policy

Legal issues

Land Trusts

Community development

Economic development

Basic economics

Tax Policies

Ag Business Management

Group Dynamics


Creativity with youth

Problem Solving in Groups

Community-based Research

Community Action

How to Work on a Team


We believe all academic courses offered as part of a sustainability curriculum should be evaluated for their contribution to this set of skills, knowledge and wisdom.  While we recognize this is an incomplete list based on our experience and analysis, we believe it is more than adequate as a beginning for evaluation of courses that might contribute to a new curriculum.  The next section offers some ideas on specific course content.


Text Box: Sustainability Course Content


Education for sustainability requires re-thinking of both what is taught and how it is taught.  This section presents ideas on course content.  When we began thinking about a sustainability curriculum, we brainstormed ideas for courses and course content.  Among the topics suggested for consideration as new courses or to be included in existing courses that would contribute to a sustainability major were:



Sustainable business

Activism for social change

Green technologies


How to manage an non-profit

Classes to support my idealism


Deep ecology

Historical context of sustainability

Sustainable cultures of the past

Sustainable literature

World religions and cultures

Physical world (climatology, geology)

Spirit of places

History of the Pioneer Valley

Solar power

Class consciousness

The process of social change in history

Confederacy of the Iroquois nation

Native wisdom

Agricultural ethics

How policy influences agricultural sustainability

Business skills – raise money, write press releases, personnel, bookkeeping


Ecological design principles

How to start a business

Holistic Management

More interdisciplinary courses held in dialogue format

Problem solving

Lots and lots of experience in the world

Non-violent communication

How to work with low tech solutions

Conflict resolution

Consensus building

Health and access to health care

Environmental health


Biotechnology and sustainability ethics

Seed banks and genetic diversity

Brownfield reclamation


Bio fuels

Alternative media

Grey water systems

Constructed wetlands

Learning communities

Mindfulness practices

Learning organizations



We recognize this “wish list” presents a challenge to the current academic system, yet we are confident in the creativity and dedication the faculty, students, and staff at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Many of these topics are already being taught in courses at UMass.  Others are being considered.  As we review the course offerings in many academic departments, we recognize that much of what is needed is already available, however it is not organized into a curriculum.  We believe this is the immediate challenge and opportunity. 

Many BDIC students have chosen to create their own course of study by selecting work from a wide range of disciplines.  Based on their experiences we suggest a new Sustainability major can be created immediately by organizing a major mostly from existing courses.  However, we hope faculty and students engaged in such a curriculum would continue to develop the major by considering the following three actions:


Creating new courses specific to the Sustainability major, as needed.

Reshaping existing courses to include new course content.

Integrating transformative teaching methodologies in both new and existing courses through a shift in pedagogy and inclusion of an experiential component. 


The following two sections describe the pedagogy of sustainability education and some thinking on the need for experiential education.



Text Box: Sustainability Curriculum Pedagogy


We believe the evolution of new transformative teaching methodologies and learning objectives may have the greatest impact on education for sustainability in the long run.  Current undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Sustainability education on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom, knowledge can be dangerous.  Human knowledge, for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Knowledge "alone" cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.  Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life). 


Developing wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  It will mean less time in classrooms and more time learning through experience.  It will require pedagogy founded on a model of transformative learning that engages the student’s mind, body and spirit.  Transformative education builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  Awareness of the connection between the individual, the community, and the cosmos are necessary attributes of education to prepare young people as leaders in sustainable world.


We believe that learning “about” sustainability is not enough.  Sustainability must be learned in the classroom as well as experienced.  Most university programs are primarily grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is, knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love. 

Communicative learning uses different teaching methods than instrumental learning and may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning and story telling are core to communicative learning.  Lastly, while instrumental learning may thrive in hierarchical systems where the power of teachers is greater than students, communicative learning must occur in environments that support co-learning of both teachers and students.  Therefore, we propose a Sustainability curriculum should be developed that focuses on both the content of learning (courses and topics) as well as the context of learning. 


The next section describes the necessity for an experiential component in a Sustainability major. 




Text Box: Experiential Education

We believe that learning outside of the classroom is a necessary ingredient of sustainability education.  The National Society for Experiential Education (NSSE) defines Experiential Education as: “Teaching and learning methods that incorporate an applied component, allowing students to develop both knowledge and skills from their active participation in out-of-classroom settings.  Service learning (community service that utilizes an academic framework), field studies (observations in natural settings), academic internships (application of theory to practice in work settings), cross-cultural education (learning through direct and significant involvement in another culture), and action research (research with practical outcomes on issues identified by a community) are a few examples of experiential education.”  (See;


A critical aspect of education for sustainability is the ability to integrate theory and practice.  This ability can’t be acquired by sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook.  We know that most adult learning (after graduation) is unstructured, random, and takes place as a result of living and making meaning out of everyday experience.  However in much of our university education, knowledge is handed over to students in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for evaluation and reward.  The interchange of information between teachers and students is like a “mental handshake” in which a prescribed set of facts is passed from an old head to a young one and back again.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher. 


While effective in one sense, “normal” classroom teaching does little to nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.  Experiential education leaves primary responsibility in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learners.  While experiential education may be guided, it is not controlled by the teacher.  Integration of concepts acquired in varying disciplines happens in “real-world” settings where there are consequences, challenges, insights, and breakthroughs.  In other words, the learning process is holistic. 


Among some of the other potential outcomes of experiential education for sustainability (adapted from NSSE) are that students have the opportunity to:

Apply, integrate, and evaluate a body of knowledge acquired from a wide set of academic disciplines

Acquire skills and values specific to Sustainability which may be applied in many professions, occupations, social institutions, or organizations

Practice personal and community-based functional skills and attitudes necessary for sustainable living

Develop the ability to learn in a self-directed fashion

Become responsible citizens of the community by identifying issues of social concern and developing skills for active participation

Develop and use an ethical perspective that supports sustainability


While we feel experiential education is a necessary component of a Sustainability major, we think the University should be flexible in the ways in which a student can gain this experience.   Students should be encouraged to develop their own proposals for experiential education.  A department or program might consider making an investment in a coordinator to assist students identify opportunities and make connections with situations that would provide appropriate experience.  There are many resources available for students wanting to engage in experiential education including books, web pages, and non-profit organizations that help identify internship, volunteer and work opportunities. 


We believe the University of Massachusetts Amherst would benefit from partnership relationships with organizations that specialize in providing experiential education such as Shutesbury, Massachusetts based, Living Routes Inc.  While there are other organizations that provide similar services, we have chosen to point to Living Routes as an example because of the close proximity of this educational non-profit organization to the UMass Amherst campus.  Living Routes offers college programs based in ecovillages around the world, which empower students, educators, and communities to help build a sustainable future.  Currently they have programs in India, Scotland, Australia, and North America (including one in nearby Shutesbury, MA).  Living Routes is working closely with a consortium of Ecovillages and academic institutions (including Cornell University, University of New Hampshire, Pacific Lutheran University, and UMass Amherst).  For more information see:


We recognize that an immersion experience in a sustainable living environment such as an ecovillage may not be appropriate for all students.  Other opportunities for international experience and cultural immersion might be equally as valuable, depending on the interests of the student.  We also believe that valuable experience may be gained by working in a local community such as Holyoke or Springfield.  The range of experiential opportunities is broad.  Regardless of the venue, we believe the particular experience chosen should help students integrate the concepts of economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity in a real-world business or community setting.  The conceptual frameworks, facts and ideas learned in the classroom environment will “come alive” in a practice situation.  Therefore we propose a Sustainability major should require a significant investment of time and energy in an educational experience guided and approved by the department offering the major. 

The class discussed several different opportunities for experiential education.  We believe each academic department which offers a sustainability major should create their own criteria for appropriate experiential education.  This might be done with interested faculty or preferably through a coordinated departmental program.  The following are a few examples of the range of opportunities we think might be appropriate for a Sustainability major in the Plant and Soil Sciences Department: 


One semester residency and sustainable living/development courses taken on site in an ecovillage in the U.S. or overseas (see;

·         Internships with NGO's in the U.S. doing research, education and community organizing related to sustainability (many are listed at

Local internships with educational non-profits working with youth such as Seeds of Solidarity farm in Orange, MA (see;

Internship and study programs with ECHO, Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (see:

·         Work with a community gardening group in Holyoke, Springfield or Boston.

Volunteer for the Green Corps: Field School for Environmental Organizing (see;

Special projects with local non-profits such as the Food Bank, Amherst Survival Center, or Not Bread Alone.

Work experience and special development project in a cooperatively run business such as Earthfoods at UMass.

Farm internships at a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm.

·         One semester at the International Center for Sustainable Human Development in Costa Rica (see

·         Volunteer or internship with CISA, the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture program, in the Pioneer Valley.

·         Global Exchange experiences (see

·         Volunteer or work for an anti-hunger organization such as Food First: Institute for Food and Development Policy (see:

·         Work and courses at Earth University in Costa Rica (for more information, see


These are just a few examples of the types of experiential education that might be appropriate.  We recommend that students work with individual faculty members or perhaps with a departmental program to develop their own proposals for experiential education that best serves their personal needs. 





The following readings are integral to understanding the conceptual foundation of education for sustainability.  They were included in the hard copy of the report and are available here as links when available. 


Education for Sustainability: The University as a Model of Sustainability by Dr. Anthony D. Cortese, President, Second Nature Inc. This may be found at:


A Quest for Sustainability by Alan Atkisson.  This may be found at:


Educating for the Environment: Higher Education’s Challenge of the Next Century by David W. Orr. Not included in electronic version of this report but available upon request to John Gerber at


Equity and the Environment: Social Justice Today as a Prerequisite for Sustainability in the Future by James K. Boyce. Not included in electronic version of this report but available upon request to


Sustainability Science by Robert W. Kates, et al.  This may be found at: - it is the first article listed.


The Quiet Dawn by Ervin Laszlo.  An excerpt from this article may be found at: