Sustainability Training in the Classroom and the Field

March 8, 2011

By Anouk Bertner, Emerging Leaders Manager, The Natural Step Canada
(This article appears in the March, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The ACUPCCDuring a recent speaking trip to North America, The Natural Step’s Founder, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, when asked about the most serious sustainability impact of colleges, replied: “The worst emission from colleges is ignorant students.”

People laughed, but this speaks to the incredible opportunity and power that colleges have over the nation’s brightest and most influential young minds–with the caveat that this opportunity lasts a mere four years and then the connection dims. Academic institutions have the commitment and indeed the responsibility to empower and equip young leaders with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to change the world toward sustainability.The Natural Step is a dynamic non-profit organization with over a decade of experience helping businesses, communities, not-for-profit organizations, academic institutions and individuals understand and make meaningful progress toward sustainability by working across sectors. We help translate the fundamentals of sustainability into practical steps businesses and communities can take to achieve lasting change. Directed at college and university students in Canada and the U.S., our Emerging Leaders Program offers the next generation of sustainability leaders the tools, training, and practical work experience needed to be effective sustainability leaders and change agents. We do this through a variety of programs, although each of our projects center around the idea of ensuring that students are gaining the experience required to become effective sustainability change agents through the use of The Natural Step Framework.

One of our current projects is a partnership with the University of Western Ontario in which we coach a group of Master’s in Environment and Sustainability students through their coop terms (coops are paid internships).  In addition to their studies, students must complete 500 hours on a sustainability-related project with an employer during the summer semester

Participating students receive four days of in-person training and then participate in bi-weekly coaching calls that help them create a sustainability vision, baseline analysis, business case for sustainability and action plan with their employers.  This has been fantastic experience for the students who must lead a sustainability planning process with the backup of a seasoned coaching team as well as a wonderful opportunity for employers to ‘test-drive’ the sustainability planning process at a modest cost.  Program participant Mary MacDougall, said: “The Natural Step Framework has made me think about sustainability in a much clearer, more strategic way.  It is a fantastic tool for a new graduate because it can be easily applied, adapted and communicated to people from a wide variety of backgrounds.  I will use it throughout my career in the sustainability field not just to frame my own thinking, but to educate and encourage other people to think systematically about sustainability as well.”

More and more institutions are picking up on the trend of experiential education and the example above is just one of the collaborations that The Natural Step has created.  Embedding sustainability into the curricula is not just about teaching these concepts, but also about ensuring that students understand how to apply the concepts and feel comfortable with this new skill set when entering the workforce.  Employers for this project have ranged from a local summer camp to a national engineering consulting firm.

The Natural Step also works individually with universities and colleges who are interested in creating sustainability plans, designing new curricula around sustainability, engaging their various stakeholders and implementing a variety of other, more tailored projects.  We have a selection of free materials on our website including a Sustainability Primer that describes The Natural Step approach in simple language, several other guidebooks that are tailored to specific audiences, case studies on our major projects and a selection of books.  Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step recently spoke on The Role of Applied Colleges in Sustainable Development and the webcast is still available here.

Finally, The Natural Step has developed an award-winning eLearning course, Sustainability 101.  The one-hour web-based course has been used by thousands of learners and hundreds of organizations interested in providing standardized, simple sustainability training for their employees, students and stakeholders.

It is a great honor to be working with students and universities internationally to support them in understanding and embedding The Natural Step Framework meaningfully into their work. Learn more about how our Emerging Leaders Program is helping academic institutions advance sustainability and how we are helping students bridge the gap between sustainability education and meaningful sustainability careers. For more information about any of these resources or to hear about upcoming projects, please contact me or visit our website.

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