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How Sustainability Centres Can Support Effective Teaching

Advice on teaching sustainability from business school sustainability centre directors, gathered at the 2016 NBS Sustainability Centres Workshop at INSEAD.

The Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) is an international network of business school sustainability centres, managed by the Network for Business Sustainability. At the third SCC workshop, co-hosted by INSEAD and held in Fontainebleau, France, in November 2016, centre leaders shared advice for addressing their common challenges.

Here are their insights on how centres can support effective sustainability teaching. They describe how centres can help universities develop students who understand sustainability as core to business success.

Companion documents offer insights on managing a sustainability centre and supporting research that impacts practice, as well as leaders’ reflections on what they wish they had known before beginning a centre. Join the Sustainability Centres Community for more insights and action.

Centres can incorporate sustainability into classes in many ways.

Workshop participants described a range of approaches their centres have used to include sustainability in the curriculum. Centres have integrated sustainability through:

  • Elective courses: either a broad sustainability elective or specialized electives for those in each discipline.

  • Requirements: one sustainability core course or sustainability integrated across required courses. A student panelist at the workshop argued for the latter approach, saying that integrating sustainability into the core best shows students how they can apply their values.

  • Multidisciplinary programs, or electives that appeal to students across disciplines. SCC member Minna Halme (Aalto University) showed a video of their multidisciplinary program.

Specific Content: SDGs and Emotional Awareness

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) can be a valuable focus for sustainability teaching. The SDGs seek to present “agreement on where the world needs to go.” Workshop participants suggested that students consider which of the 17 UN SDGs make most sense for a given business. For example, in a project course, students could support a business in acting on the UN SDG closest to their strategy.

Workshop participants said that including sustainability in curriculum means teaching emotional and interpersonal skills, as well as social and environmental content. Empathy and self-awareness are key. “Students need to know what it feels like to BE a vulnerable person,” said SCC member Mark Meaney (University of Colorado, Boulder). Human-centered design can be a way to build this empathy. To help in development of self-awareness, Erasmus University connects sustainability to mindfulness, offering training to employees.

Faculty may need support in teaching sustainability. One resource is the Sustainability Curriculum Consortium, which helps educators share best practices.

Sustainability education also occurs outside the classroom.

Field trips and projects can be powerful learning experiences. These activities connect students to companies or other organizations, allowing them to participate in or consult on a real-world situation. Such experiences can help studentsfeel the issues they talk about, causing lasting changes in perspective. Workshop participant Rodney Irwin, of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that his organization can help universities connect to companies to arrange such experiences.

Trips and projects take different forms. They can occur as part of a class, or be organized by a student club. One centre organizes drop-in clinics and mentorship for social enterprises and non-profits. Other centres plan ideation sessions or hackathons. If interested students outnumber corporate partners, multiple student teams can come up with a solution for one company and compete to be the team chosen to implement.

Provide Appropriate Career Development

Students need help exploring the options for sustainability careers. Not everyone seeks to become a Chief Sustainability Officer. Workshop participants emphasize the importance of showing students how they can bring a systems or sustainability perspective into mainstream jobs. Centre leaders should highlight examples of conventional practitioners who have made it in a sustainable way. They should train “hybrid” students, capable of achieving short-term profits with an eye on long-term value.

There’s a long way to go.

A wide gap exists between the sustainability training business schools could provide and what students currently receive. Students desire and benefit from emphasis on sustainability issues. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 87% of millennials believe businesses should care about more than financial performance. Research shows that people need to contribute to something positive and beyond themselves to be happy.

Yet, a workshop participant noted, research shows that business school students leave business school more self-interested than when they entered. (See related research that studying economics increases selfishness.)

The business school funding model may shift students away from more socially-oriented goals. High tuition debt drives students to maximize salary. SCC member Jason Jay (MIT) noted that MIT finds students loaded with debt more likely to move right into a high paying consulting job. Those who are partially funded are more likely to take risks, getting involved in social enterprise, venture capital, and other alternatives. Ironically, in the long term, these people who start small and get equity positions in startups actually make more money.

More Information

For additional resources for sustainability centres, see the Sustainability Centres Community webpage. Join the Sustainability Centres Community to become part of the learning and action network.

Learn about the Sustainability Centres Community

Our Partners

The Sustainability Centres Workshop was made possible by support from the Network for Business Sustainability, the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre, Sorbonne Universités, the Harvard Business School Business and Environment Initiative, the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at Rotman School of Management, and the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative.

Additional Resources

Read other workshop outputs for insights on sustainability centre management and research, and what leaders wish they had known before beginning a centre.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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