Integrating Sustainability across the University

The University of Utah's new director of sustainability education, Adrienne Cachelin.

The University of Utah’s new director of sustainability education, Adrienne Cachelin.

By Shaun Daniel, Sustainability Resource Center

Imagine a time when every graduating student thinks of themselves as a part of something larger—an ecosystem—and the director of every department on campus speaks passionately about how sustainability relates to their disciplines.

That’s Adrienne Cachelin’s vision for the future as the University of Utah moves to join universities across the country in incorporating sustainability into curricula institution-wide.

Cachelin has been teaching at the University of Utah since 2002, integrating themes of education, ecology, food, health, justice, and equity into her courses. Her newest role as director of sustainability education takes advantage of this interdisciplinary perspective.

“I am excited to work with other departments and to meet with other folks,” she says.

In her new position, Cachelin will create web-based materials and a Canvas course on ways to infuse sustainability education across disciplines, support the faculty learning community around sustainability, and work with interdisciplinary teams to identify and develop materials for integrating sustainability into curricula, including for the University’s affiliation with Incheon Global Campus in South Korea.

Cachelin sees a need to tie sustainability to academic disciplines and to apply the disciplines to one’s life. This fits with her overall philosophy on education. She says, “As an educator, I have a responsibility to more than course content; I have a responsibility to the whole student and, consequently, the larger community.”

The foundations for sustainability education on campus were laid by the sustainability certificate program set up by professors Steve Burian and Dan McCool in 2012, which allows undergraduate students who are not enrolled in the Environmental & Sustainability Studies program to still develop knowledge, skills, and experience in sustainability issues. The late Craig Forster, the first director of sustainability at the U, initially proposed the certificate.

Still image from "Eating for Justice, Sustainability, and Health: Adrienne Cachelin at TEDxSaltLakeCity." (Source: TEDx Talks)

Still image from “Eating for Justice, Sustainability, and Health: Adrienne Cachelin at TEDxSaltLakeCity.” (Source: TEDx Talks)

Cachelin’s own experience goes back to her undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont, where she found the environmental studies program and was drawn to the way that it reached out into the community. A growing interest in ecology and sustainability led Cachelin to consider how her knowledge might best be shared, guiding her to a career in teaching and a master’s degree in education. Her field work posed new questions about politics and framing, which she explored in her Ph.D. at the U. Her dissertation focused on the effects of language and framing on sustainability education. She found that educational materials that presented humans as part of nature led to enhanced critical thinking.

At the University of Utah, Cachelin has taught such courses as Environmental Education, Environmental Justice, Field Ecology, and Eating for Justice, Health and Sustainability. (See a video of her TEDxSaltLakeCity presentation here.) Cachelin also served as director of environmental education at Red Butte Garden for nearly 10 years and, prior to that, was an instructor at the Teton Science School.

In her writing and research, Cachelin focuses on what she calls “critical sustainability,” bringing together critical theory with sustainability research and practice. Her work challenges the status quo—such as assumptions about unlimited growth—and highlights the importance of sustainability education as praxis. Cachelin’s regular incorporation of Community Engaged Learning (CEL) in her classes is testament to her emphasis on practice.

Nested circles of sustainability, rather than the typical Venn diagram. Image source: KTucker, Wikpedia/Creative Commons.

Nested circles of sustainability, rather than the typical Venn diagram. Image source: KTucker, Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Rather than a particular definition of sustainability, Cachelin points to a favorite illustration of environment, society and economy in concentric circles rather than the Venn diagram more commonly seen. She prefers the way it conveys that everything ultimately depends on the environment, and that sustainability is therefore a universal issue. She also cites a quote from one of her favorite former students, who said, “Sustainability is not an issue of the environment…it’s an issue of what it means to be human.”

Cachelin notes that sustainability education may offer a formal way to recognize commonalities across disciplines and to integrate more of a systems thinking approach throughout the university. “I believe that learning happens most effectively among peers struggling together to make sense of a concept or process,” she says.

Recently, Cachelin met with about 20 other U of U educators as part of the Wasatch Experience: Teaching Sustainability workshop, which brings together diverse faculty members from across campus to share ideas, create new learning activities, and develop modified courses that incorporate sustainability into the curriculum. Along with Steve Burian and Mercedes Ward, Cachelin will help keep this workshop going into the future.

In addition to Wasatch Experience, a Faculty Learning Community will begin meeting soon to consider how best to blend sustainability into curricula. The group will be working with the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence to help it reach every department chair—one step closer to Cachelin’s vision for the University.

Still just a few weeks into her new role, Cachelin is considering a variety of questions. How to measure outcomes of sustainability education? How do we talk about sustainability in the different disciplines as well as through them? How do we not make this just another task that professors or students have to do? She hopes to play the part of translator and organizer, bringing together diverse elements of campus.

Of the work ahead, Cachelin says with a bit of a grin, “It’s a challenge, but it’s great to be challenged.”

Shaun Daniel is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

2 responses to “Integrating Sustainability across the University

  1. While I applaud this action and those of the SRC in general, I think it would speak more clearly if we walked our talk by putting more campus wide sustainable POLICIES in place. For example, why are we not leaders in campus wide food composting, single stream recycling that takes more than Plastic #1 and #2, requiring all on campus vendors to adhere to sustainable operations, or purchasing campus wide green cleaning products? There is energy and motivation on campus to adopt more progressive sustainable practices – the Administration should also focus on harvesting that source of change.

  2. Pingback: Fewer than 30 seats left for annual sustainability and diversity event | sustainableUTAH·

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