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Sustainability and Curriculum, Part 2

March 30, 2012

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Recent research indicates advancing sustainability in the area of curriculum is falling behind other efforts to incorporate sustainability in the higher ed setting, such as in facilities planning. This two-part series will look at a few of WIU's curriculum-oriented and academic programs designed to help incorporate sustainability in formal instruction.

Part one provided a brief look at the recently established Coneflower Workshop at WIU, a dedicated initiative with a goal of infusing sustainability into the curriculum, as well as the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' ongoing Sustainability Brownbaggers series. Part two covers how the Brownbaggers series has been integrated into the environmental studies minor offered through WIU's Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), as well as provides an overview of the mission of the IES.

MACOMB, IL -- Next week, Western Illinois University, on both the Macomb and Quad Cities Riverfront campuses, will celebrate the ninth year of its annual Environmental Summit. The event -- and all the planning, organization and coordination that goes into it -- is one of the ways the University demonstrates its level of commitment to educating students, as well as faculty, staff and the western Illinois region, about environmental sustainability. Another way the University supports environmental education and the concept of sustainability is through its Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), a supporter of the Environmental Summit.

Established in 2005, the IES at WIU has a three-part mission, which includes supporting interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate academic programs in environmental studies; undertaking collaborative environmental research and scholarship through external grants and contracts; and providing the campus and community with service and outreach to address environmental sustainability within local and regional contexts. IES Director and Department of Biological Sciences Professor Roger Viadero noted that the vision for the Institute is to become an interdisciplinary center of knowledge and expertise focusing on the scientific, human and social aspects of rural and regional environmental issues.

"Because we're in Western's College of Arts and Sciences, I think it's very important to make sure that we try to cut across those three major areas of the natural sciences, the humanities and the social sciences," he explained. "The strength of the Institute is derived directly from the expertise and engagement of Western's faculty."

Collaborative Curriculum

One of those faculty members is Amy Mossman, associate professor in English and journalism, who represents faculty from the humanities in the Institute's interdisciplinary vision. Last May, Mossman established the Coneflower Project at Western, an annual workshop that brings together faculty members from different disciplines so they can learn about sustainability and talk about concrete ways they can work those concepts into their courses across the curriculum.

"These workshops are held around the country, such as Emory University's Piedmont Project or Northern Arizona University's Ponderosa Project. Because they are focused on place -- specifically, sustainability in a particular place -- the workshops have often been named after something that fits for a particular eco-region. 'Coneflower Project' fits in western Illinois, because some of the coneflower species are native to prairies in our region," Mossman explained.

From the natural sciences side, Eric Ribbens, a professor in Western's biological sciences department, teaches courses in the environmental studies undergraduate minor, an academic program offered through the IES. He noted that the minor is designed to combine a diversity of majors and perspectives.

"In my environmental studies classes, I have students who are majoring in law enforcement and justice administration to economics to sociology. The minor is interdisciplinary, both in terms of what comes into it from the students -- that it will appeal to and work with virtually every major -- and in the sense of what we do with it, what they learn and what they get out of it. That's what's nice about the Coneflower Project. I study botany, and I think plants are cool, but you can live a wonderful life without knowing about plants. But if we're going to all continue to live our wonderful lives, we've got to learn about sustainability," Ribbens said.

Incorporated into the design of Ribbens' instruction for the environmental studies (ES) minor courses he teaches is the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs' Brownbaggers Sustainability series held at Western Illinois University's Leslie F. Malpass Library fall and spring semesters. The series is comprised of approximately seven lunch-hour sessions on Tuesdays, and each session features a speaker or speakers who address a sustainability-related topic.

This semester, students in Ribbens' ES 401 course, the capstone course in the environmental studies minor, have attended some of the Spring 2012 Sustainability Brownbaggers sessions. Ribbens noted the series exposes them to interdisciplinary perspectives in person.

"It has been interesting hearing their comments about the different presentations, from, 'I didn't understand this…' to thinking about things in ways that hadn't occurred to them before. It makes a lot more sense for them to hear about climate problems from Dr. Jongnam Choi, a geography professor here at Western, who studies this stuff, instead of me trying to digest and interpret it for them," Ribbens said.

Adam Frantz, a former Marine and a junior meteorology major who completed Ribbens' introductory ES 201 course in Fall 2011, said the topics and issues addressed in the 201 core course of the ES minor, both in the Brownbaggers series and those Ribbens covered in class, provided him with a profound perspective about sustainability.

"I had one friend refer to it as a 'hippie' minor, but it's not that at all. It's about the human impact on the environment. It's kind of like the butterfly that flaps its wings and creates a tsunami 1,000 miles away. We have a lot bigger impact than we think, and it's a smaller planet than we know. At some point, we're going to have to address environmental issues on a larger scale. It's important now and especially for the future," Frantz said.

For faculty, Ribbens also noted that the community created from the Brownbaggers series and the Institute for Environmental Studies facilitates ongoing collaboration among them and strives to meet the interdisciplinary goals of both.

"I think this does a lot for us at our university. If it weren't for the Brownbaggers series or the Institute for Environmental Studies, how likely would it be that a botany professor, like me, would get involved with a class of students enrolled in an English course? Last semester, I worked with the students in one of Amy's courses based on our work together through the Brownbaggers and the Institute for Environmental Studies. This issue of sustainability brings us all together in this intellectual dialogue," Ribbens explained.

Overall, Viadero noted that the mission of the IES is to strive to facilitate several points of view about sustainability -- for students, faculty, as well as the larger community that we all live in -- and work together to produce solutions.

"We're not just talking about solutions that can be found in natural science or with, say, technology," Viadero said. "We are talking about systemic problems that require systems thinking, interdisciplinary thinking. Recycling is an example. You hear about it all of the time. But when we have students, and even faculty, who become better versed in the issue of recycling, they start to ask themselves, 'Why? What exactly does recycling mean?' Well, not only does it save landfill space, but we're also saving on energy, because you don't have extract more raw materials to make new aluminum cans, for instance. Saving energy makes sense for everybody. So if we can get folks to start to think about things in that way, that does transfer into people making good decisions in their personal lives and, hopefully, also professionally."

For more information about the Institute for Environmental Studies and how its interdisciplinary approach and its programs and services provide unique, integrated and holistic approaches to environmental challenges, visit

Editors' Note: "Sustainability and Curriculum, Part 1" is available at

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Office of University Communications & Marketing