Learning from a Top-Ranked Undergraduate Sustainability Program
Directors of the Environment and Business program at University of Waterloo describe its structure and offer advice on improving sustainability education.
Environment and Business is a degree program developed by the School for Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED) at the University of Waterloo. Sustainability publishing company Corporate Knights has ranked the program number one in Canada, from 2007 to 2011, for its integration of sustainability in undergraduate business education.
Corporate Knights rates programs based on sustainability-related institutional support, student-led initiatives, and coursework. The methodology is adapted from the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes Report.
Corporate Knights praised Environment and Business for its required sustainability-focused courses and its eight-month student research and consulting project.
A Varied Curriculum
The curriculum has three course types: core business, environmental studies and integrated studies.
Core business courses offer students traditional business education, including introduction to business studies, finance, accounting, economics, strategy and marketing.
Environmental studies courses give students theoretical and technical expertise in geography, Geographic Information Systems, ecology, environmental assessments, ecological economics, environmental ethics, law and research methods.
Integrated studies courses combine business and environmental topics. Topics addressed include environmental management systems, green entrepreneurship, industrial ecology, green marketing and sustainability reporting and auditing.
In five years, the program has grown from 260 to over 600 students. About 145 students enter the program annually.
The Environment and Business program has led to positive outcomes for the school and its stakeholders, according to Neil Craik, director of SEED:
International collaboration: Through a partnership with Nanjing University of Finance and Economics, 30 Chinese students enter the program each year. Canadian students benefit from working with and learning from international students. The partnership also builds capacity in China, where business sustainability is still emerging.
Engaging industry: Through student co-ops and experiential learning courses, the program supports applied student learning and industry sustainability. Participating companies include Hewlett Packard, CleanFarms, Harbourfront Centre and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority. Student projects for these clients include research reports, proposal analyses and marketing campaigns.
Integration of sustainability: Rather than add sustainability courses to an existing business program, SEED created novel courses and experiential learning opportunities that married the two disciplines.
Advice on Replication
Neil Craik and Jennifer Lynes, program director for Environment and Business, offer this advice on improving undergraduate sustainability education:
Don’t ignore the science: There is a pedagogical and competitive advantage for students to understand basic environmental science. It helps students appreciate the biophysical processes of problems they will have to solve. For example, fully understanding climate change and carbon management requires learning the carbon cycle.
Students need tools, not just strategy: Companies have told Craik they want students with quantitative, technical business skills, such as measurement, reporting and life cycle analysis. Students should know how to perform these tasks, but also how to interpret and think critically about measurements.
Experiential learning is important: Many of the soft skills needed in the workplace are difficult to teach in a classroom. These include email writing, elevator pitches and boardroom presentations. Giving students the opportunity to work with organizations on real problems allows them to develop these skills. Often, student placements also lead to employment after graduation.
Course content must be updated regularly: Theories and empirical research on business sustainability are constantly evolving. For example, over one-third of research publications on socially conscious consumerism have occurred in the last six years. To ensure students receive the most current information, program managers and instructors must stay on top of emerging trends.